Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The Taliban didn't even need to fire a shot. A band of insurgents overran a small rural district in eastern Afghanistan before dawn Monday, setting government buildings and vehicles ablaze and abducting at least 16 police officers, provincial authorities said.
Some observers warned that the overnight incident in the Khogyani district of Ghazni province was symptomatic of an intensifying Taliban push in parts of the country other than the south, the movement's traditional stronghold, and where Western officials have been reporting significant military progress.
Government forces regained control of the district within a few hours, provincial spokesman Ismail Jahangir said; the Taliban melted away when a large contingent of Afghan police and soldiers moved in. NATO forces were not involved, the Western military said. The fate of the abducted Afghan police officers was unknown.
Provincial officials said the brief takeover underscored the growing vulnerability of isolated districts in a province where the insurgency has been growing stronger.
Ghazni's geographic position is strategic; the main highway between the capital, Kabul, and the south's main city of Kandahar runs through it. NATO supply convoys come under frequent attack when they pass through the province.
"The security situation is very bad in Ghazni; in many parts of the province, the government has no control," said Qayum Sajadi, a member of parliament from the province. "The Taliban has the upper hand."
Most of Ghazni was deemed too dangerous to hold voting in September's parliamentary elections.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in Khogyani, and spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid boasted that the insurgents could carry out such strikes at will.
Sajadi likened the security situation in Ghazni to that in the southern province of Helmand. Most of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are concentrated in Helmand and in neighboring Kandahar, where Taliban fighters in recent weeks largely have been driven from key districts surrounding Kandahar city.
U.S. and other coalition forces have been pushing into parts of Helmand where insurgents have long been dominant. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force Monday reported a two-day clash with insurgents in Helmand that it said had left 15 Taliban fighters dead.
As that fighting in the district of Reg-e-Khan Neshin was winding down Sunday, Western forces discovered a bomb-making factory and weapons cache. Nearly 24 tons of ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient in most makeshift bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, was destroyed. That was enough to make more than 2,000 IEDs, which are the No. 1 killer of U.S. and other Western troops.
But even such military successes do not guarantee safety for local inhabitants. In another Helmand district, Nawa-e-Barakzayi, provincial authorities said Monday that two Afghan women were found shot to death.
Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said insurgents were suspected of killing the women, who ran a group that helped other women set up small businesses.