March 2, 2011:
Taliban attacks in Afghanistan are down so far this year, with fewer roadside bombs, or gunmen engaging foreign and Afghan troops. But there are now more attacks on civilian targets, with over a hundred civilians being killed by these bombs in February alone. What this means is that the NATO campaign against drug gang and Taliban base areas last year 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 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, arrived in larger numbers. 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 has caused resentment among the Pushtuns, and even less willingness to work with the national government. It helps the Taliban recruit, even though most Pushtuns want the Taliban to go away. And many of those who do work for the Taliban come to regret it. Most recruits believe the religious and "clean government" pitch, and are dismayed when asked to kill women and children. But 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 will get 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. Many Taliban leaders in Afghanistan want to negotiate some kind of deal, but the old timers in Baluchistan will 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.