July 11, 2012:
More and more pro-Taliban tribal leaders in Afghanistan have been negotiating peace deals, and amnesty for themselves, with the government and each other. The senior Taliban leadership insists this isn't happening, and Pakistani military leaders have ordered the assassination of some of these pro-amnesty tribal chiefs. Some of the negotiations are taking place outside the country, in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. It's gotten to the point where even Pakistan is pretending to assist the process, rather than fighting it. While the Taliban urges their followers to just hold out until 2014, when most of the foreign troops will leave, this is not enough incentive to keep risking your life. The foreign troops and Afghan security forces increasingly find and kill, or capture, Taliban leaders. The feeling is that, while the deadly foreign soldiers will soon be gone, the Afghan government will probably survive. It's also believed that the foreign air support will remain behind. It's also realized that most Afghans hate the Taliban and the drug gangs. In short, the Taliban is seen as a bad bet for long-term success.
Taliban attacks in Afghanistan are down for the last two years, with fewer roadside bombs or gunmen engaging foreign and Afghan troops. But there are now more attacks on civilian targets. What this means is that the NATO campaign against drug gangs and Taliban base areas has reduced the ability of the Taliban to manufacture and plant roadside bombs or organize ground or rocket attacks. So resources have been shifted to terrorizing the civilian population.
The Taliban have long had a serious image problem. It is getting worse. For example, although the Taliban claim to be the enemy of corruption and violence, they cannot exist without either. Most Afghans recognize this, which is why the Taliban are so unpopular and and really only a threat in one small part of the country (Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where most Taliban come from). The Taliban bribe who they can and terrorize the rest. These are classic Afghan tactics, and everyone from warlords to bandits uses them. What makes the Taliban unique is the religious angle and the use of a drug gang alliance to raise cash. The Taliban use religion as another form of terror. Threatening people for not being Islamic enough is easy to do in Afghanistan, where religion has always been worn lightly but not ignored entirely. Yet the Taliban are generally perceived as thuggish hypocrites. They turn teenagers into suicide bombers and protect the drug trade that has turned millions of Afghans (and even more Pakistanis and Iranians) into opium or heroin addicts, yet demand that people stop watching movies or having dance music at weddings.
While the Taliban may be perceived as loathsome losers at the ground level, their leaders are clever enough to play the Western media. The Taliban faced a major problem with Western troops, who are unbeatable on the battlefield and very hard to kill in general, when they arrived in larger numbers over the past five years. In response, the Taliban strived to make every foreigner death a news event. Thus the preference for suicide bomb attacks in urban areas, where foreign journalists can easily cover the event. Outside the cities, the Taliban consider foreign journalists as sources of income, to be kidnapped (for ransom) on sight. So most foreign journalists stay in the cities, waiting for whatever media events the Taliban will bring to them.
The only "fighting" the Taliban do is against people they cannot bribe or coerce. Taliban death squads go after these people, who are usually uncomfortably effective police commanders or local leaders (elected or tribal). The Taliban don't want a lot of international publicity for this but do want Afghans to know what happens to those who do not cooperate. The Taliban do have the most effective assassination capability in the country. But the Taliban can really only use these killers effectively in the south, where Pushtuns are the majority. Occasional hits outside the south usually fail. The Taliban have, in effect, revived the ancient civil war between themselves (about 40 percent of the population) and the non-Pushtun (Tajik, Hazara, Turkic) majority.
The Pushtuns were always more united than their opponents and able to get the majority to let Pushtuns dominate what is now known as "Afghanistan." But because of the American intervention in late 2001, the Northern Alliance (of non-Pushtuns) were able to defeat the (Pushtun) Taliban and grab a majority of senior government jobs. This caused resentment among the Pushtuns and even less willingness to work with the national government. It helped the Taliban recruit, even though most Pushtuns want the Taliban to go away. And many of those who do work for the Taliban came to regret it. Many recruits believed the religious and "clean government" pitch and were dismayed when asked to kill women and children. Even the Taliban bosses got the blues.
The roadside bomb campaign failed, as it did in Iraq, and the U.S. campaign to hunt down and capture or kill Taliban leaders has devastated morale of the Taliban commanders. The senior leadership, safe across the border in Pakistan (Baluchistan, where American UAVs are not allowed to hunt terrorists), insist that the front line leaders be more aggressive. But that only got these leaders killed more quickly. It's much safer to plan and carry out attacks on civilian targets, which are not surrounded by American UAVs and electronic intelligence collecting aircraft. Increasingly Taliban leaders in Afghanistan wanted to negotiate some kind of deal, but the old timers in Baluchistan would not have it. So many Taliban field commanders, like many of their troops, are just quitting. There are still plenty of ambitious Pushtuns willing to take the money and kill for the cause, no matter what they are asked to do. But this makes the Taliban more of a fraud, bandits with pretentions to being saviors.
The Taliban turncoats believe that the Afghan government, which is notoriously corrupt, will allow local tribes to make deals with the drug gangs or (for a price) go into the drug business themselves. The national government will earn their way by dealing with foreigners intent on eliminating the lucrative drug trade and the widespread corruption in foreign aid programs. In short, the Afghans are telling each other to stop killing Afghans and concentrate on getting rich.