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As Taliban regroup, victims battle for 'free' Afghanistan

Anja Niedringhaus / AP, file

Zalmai Faizi, a seven-year veteran of the Afghan National Police, last month buried his five-year-old daughter Ennah and 18-year-old son Zalkai after they were murdered by Taliban gunmen.

The Taliban were driven from power in Afghanistan 11 years ago this week but remain a threat. NBC News spoke to Afghans who have suffered at their hands and looked at what people believe the country's future will hold after NATO troops withdraw in 2014.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Zalmai Faizi's two children were playing in his police car when the Taliban assassins pulled up on motorcycles. 

After having a few words with Faizi's son, the gunmen peppered the vehicle leaving the teenager and his five-year-old sister dead. Faizi rushed out of his house to find his kids in a pool of blood. 

As a police officer in Afghanistan's eastern Ghazni province, the 40-year-old carries out one of the world's most dangerous jobs. He paid an unimaginable price for his convictions.

"I have been getting threats since last year by the Taliban, but I decided not to give it any attention," he told NBC News. "I was not the target because I came home 10 minutes before. They had a chat with my son and then they started firing."

Faizi believes the Taliban wanted to teach him a lesson and send a message to others: Quit your job or pay a heavy price. He says he ignored the warnings simply because he had no other choice. He needed his monthly salary of $224 and had long-accepted that the job came with some risks. 

'My only hope'
Like many of his countrymen, Faizi believes in a secure and safe Afghanistan. Without people like him, Afghanistan could fall into chaos or back into the hands of the Taliban and warlords after NATO troops leave.

Aref Karimi / AFP - Getty Images

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

He and his wife and their remaining kids are now in a desperate state, in fear for their own lives and catatonic with grief.

"I have lost my young son and daughter who were my only hope and for whom I had great aspirations," he said through tears.

Threats from the Taliban are a regular occurrence for all security officials in Afghanistan. The Taliban have sworn to kill anyone who colludes with "evil" Western forces. Faizi's kids were the latest in a long line of victims but such attacks are neither rare nor isolated.

Analysts believe such incidents -- as well as insider attacks by Afghan security personnel targeting NATO troops -- are part of a Taliban plan to weaken government forces ahead of a comeback when foreign troops leave.

Joint US-Afghan operations are becoming more common, and so are the risks. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

In the lead-up to the planned withdrawal in 2014, Taliban strategies have become both smarter and more sinister. Just last month, six Afghan policemen were poisoned by their cook. As they lay unconscious they were shot dead by another colleague. The Taliban's fight for survival has become increasingly dirty, driven by a determination that the group will rise again.

Notorious Taliban leader Mullah Omar remains elusive. Rumors of whether he is dead, alive or insane have gone into overdrive but his 10-year absence from the public stage has not lessened his influence.

"He remains an important leader and figure for the Taliban, but the Taliban is successful because of middle-level commanders," NBC News terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said. "It's like a franchise; it's decentralized enough so that the Taliban are going to be around whether or not there is a Mullah Omar."

More Afghanistan coverage from NBC News

He describes the Taliban today as a patchwork of groups spread across large regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan borders, held together by common religious beliefs, social objectives and an opposition to foreign "occupation."

"At this point, they've put their differences aside in order to unite and fight the Western presence," Kohlmann added.

Soosan Firooz rhymes about Afghanistan and the many crises its people have faced. In a country where public performance by women is frowned upon, this is no easy feat.  NBC News' Tazeen Ahmad reports.

Just over a decade ago, the world watched in horror as the Taliban blew up Buddhas in Bamiyan province and shot women at close range in a stadium in Kabul. Kohlmann says they have since, publicly at least, moderated and attempted to change their image so they can engage in the world of diplomacy.

However, many ordinary people in Afghanistan believe the same medieval attitudes to women and justice are simmering below the surface, along with the Taliban's long-established appetite for unpalatable brutality.

Jamieson Lesko / NBC News

When they ruled Kabul in the 1990s, the Taliban forced people who were being executed up on to this diving board and pushed them into the empty pool below.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kabul, where countless cemeteries sprawl across the city with no boundaries, some graves no more than a piece of rock in the ground.

Within these cemeteries, lie the bodies of thousands of ordinary Afghans killed by the Taliban. It's a stark reminder of the city's dreadful history.

At a hilltop above one graveyard is an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It was once the scene of heinous acts of cruelty when during the 1990s the Taliban forced people to climb to the top diving board and pushed them into the empty pool to meet a terrible death below.

Tazeen Ahmad / NBC News

Some of the graves in Kabul's cemeteries are no more than a piece of rock in the ground.

Today's Taliban now defend their record on human rights. Whether the people of Afghanistan have forgotten is another story. However, a decade is a long time out of power.

New tricks
The Taliban have regrouped, modernized, learned new tricks and taken their battle to many fronts – including the Internet. They use Facebook to gather information and Twitter to spread their propaganda. Every attack is tweeted about immediately with over-inflated claims of how many "invaders" were killed. They've even got an ongoing online spat with ISAF – with each side equally determined to win the war of words.

Away from cyberspace, some of the most notorious aspects of Taliban ideology have seeped into everyday life.

In recent months, violence against women has increased dramatically. Afghanistan's Independent Human Right Commission on Tuesday said it has registered more than 3,000 cases of violence against women this year. More than 700 cases have been reported in Herat alone.

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Others say the numbers are far higher in more remote regions. Women have been burnt, mutilated, decapitated, had acid thrown in their faces, sold, prostituted, raped and used as currency. Not all of this is because of the Taliban, but women's groups say this increase in violence is part and parcel of the Taliban's legacy.

A suicide bomber, disguised as an Afghan police officer, blew himself up outside a mosque in northern Afghanistan, killing 40 people and wounding more than 50. NBC's Tazeen Ahmad reports from Kabul.

Despite public declarations to the contrary, the Taliban have not relinquished attempts to derail education for Afghan girls. During the summer, 160 schoolgirls were admitted to hospital in northern Afghanistan after they were poisoned; the police say the Taliban were responsible.

Razia Jan, a strong-minded and charismatic Afghan-American, runs a girls school about 30 miles from Kabul called the Zubili Education Center. Remarkably, men in the surrounding seven villages have overcome their initial resistance and have now joined forces to become its biggest protectors. But the threat from the Taliban is never far away. Jan speaks cautiously, conscious of drawing too much unnecessary attention.

Karen Wong / Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation

Razia Jan's school provides free education to over 350 young girls every day.

"There are now millions of girls that go to school but education has been and is going to be hurt by the Taliban," she told NBC News. "They are supposed to be students of religion but they are thugs; they are terrorists."

This hasn't stopped Jan. Her school provides free education to more than 350 young girls daily. "It's such a blessing for them to learn something and go back home. The fathers are so proud," she says.

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These small signs of hope and bravery can be found across Afghanistan. Gul Jan, a 55-year-old woman from northwest Afghanistan's Shebarghan city is more courageous than most.

Her husband was murdered by the Taliban -- flogged, whipped and beaten for hours until he collapsed in front of their house.

Shortly after his death, they forced her out of her home. Determined to survive for her five young children, Gul Jan rebuilt her life and now works as a tailor.  That's no mean feat for a single mother in Afghanistan. She does not mince her words about the Taliban.

"They are very bad people," she says. "People should go and ask them why they are doing this. This is not our religion."

In recent months, there have also been reports of 10 separate anti-Taliban insurgencies occurring in remote regions of Afghanistan. However, analysts say these small steps are not indicative of a wider trend, at least not yet.

NBC's Richard Engel examines America's progress after fighting for more than a decade in Afghanistan. Is there any evidence that the American plan to hand over a credible, stable Afghan government will work?

But in Kabul, there are other signs of change. The blue burqa, one of the most potent images of Taliban times, is not as ubiquitous as it once was.

Women across the capital wander around with full faces of make-up -- heads always draped with a shawl as is customary -- but also the flash of a killer heel beneath a long local robe, or the jangle of bracelets as they shop alone or in pairs. The tradition of a male companion has been long-deemed unnecessary.

PhotoBlog: Afghan women learn literacy through mobile phones

But as women wander through stores in central Kabul with names like "Life's Good," the shadow of the Taliban is never far away. 

"For years the Taliban have destroyed Afghanistan. They destroyed lives for girls," Razia Jan added. "But I think they are just cowards hiding in places where nobody can get to them and they come out like a snake and they bite you and then they slither back."

She then adds with a smile, "I can imagine an Afghanistan that is someday free of the Taliban. It will take awhile, but I think it's possible."

NBC News' Jamieson Lesko contributed to this report.

Follow NBC News' Tazeen Ahmad on Twitter.

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