KABUL - Two devastating suicide attacks in Afghanistan in the fortnight since elections show the Taliban is penetrating ever deeper in its war against the Kabul government and its international backers.
Insurgents are taking advantage of the government's inability to provide security to spread their tentacles from areas where they have long held sway.
An attack on Wednesday that killed the country's deputy spy chief, three other officials and 20 civilians, showed "a serious crisis threatening the government," said analyst Ahmad Sayedi, a former politician and diplomat.
"This shows the failure of the Afghan security institutions -- especially the intelligence services," he said.
"When the Taliban attack and assassinate the head of the provincial council, the deputy intelligence chief, it shows they are extending their grip over a wider area with higher targets," he said.
The Taliban claimed the attack in Mihtarlam, capital of eastern Laghman province, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying deputy head of the National Directorate of Security, Abdullah Laghmani, was the target.
The city is just 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Kabul and equidistant from the Pakistan border.
The attack came eight days after a massive truck bomb in southern Kandahar killed more than 40 people, injured another 60 and devastated the city centre in the deadliest militant attack for more than a year.
The Taliban have waged a vicious campaign around elections held on August 20, which appears to have successfully kept turnout low.
Poll results are being released gradually, with incumbent Hamid Karzai leading challenger Abdullah Abdullah in a race tainted by fraud that threatens to undermine its credibility.
"The government is paralysed by bribery, drugs and incompetence," said Sayedi.
"People are distanced from the government and this gap gets bigger and bigger every day. People do not support Taliban but at the same time they are dismayed by the unbelievable extent of official corruption."
Corruption watchdog Transparency International rates Afghanistan the world's fifth most corrupt nation.
A foreign aid worker said graft and lack of security made Afghans "nostalgic for the rough justice of the Taliban" regime pushed out in a 2001 US-led invasion.
"They didn't like it, but at least they knew the rules," she said on condition of anonymity.
The insurgents have long held sway in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where troops under US and NATO command have escalated operations to establish government control.
Increased battle has led to record foreign troop deaths -- with 2009 already the deadliest year since the war began eight years ago.
The Taliban have been retreating from military engagement and escalating terrorist-type attacks, diplomats and military leaders have told AFP.
The rising death toll and vote fraud allegations have seen a dramatic fall in Western public support for a continued presence in Afghanistan.
But Western leaders promise a long-term presence, determined to train Afghans to take on military and civilian challenges and allow a troop drawdown.
In the meantime, said Haroun Mir, of the Centre for Research and Policy Studies, "the Taliban is filling the vacuum".
"There are not enough security forces to protect everyone so people get their protection from the Taliban in order not to be subject to Taliban retribution," he said.
European, US and NATO leaders at a meeting in Paris on Wednesday of international envoys to Afghanistan said Western troops will stay until security is achieved.
This is at the heart of a review by US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who wants to use counter-insurgency tactics to boost Afghans' confidence in the face of the Taliban encroachment.
But Mir said that Taliban use of improvised explosive devices, or hidden roadside bombs, against foreign troops has been devastating, facilitating insurgent expansion.
From a post-election tour of Afghanistan's north, he reported Taliban checkpoints on previously clear roads in Kunduz and Takhar provinces.
Reports have detailed recent attacks in previously peaceful areas, including western Badghis and Faryab provinces.
On Wednesday, a child was killed when a bicycle bomb exploded near Red Cross vehicles in Jawzjan, capital of normally quiet northern Jawzjan province.
"They are moving from their bases in Helmand to other parts of the country, north and west," said analyst Sayedi of the insurgents.