The Taliban are entering the death-spiral phase of their comeback campaign. This can be seen by sharply reduced activity in the countryside (where the surge in NATO and Afghan troops has broken the fighting spirit of the Taliban), and the increased reliance on high-profile terror attacks. NATO casualties are down from the same period last year, although the media coverage of Taliban terror attacks might make you think otherwise. The fighting through the Winter was particularly damaging to the Taliban, and recruiting for this year's "Spring Offensive" has been difficult. It's been known for over two years that this switch in tactics was coming. It's the same pattern seen in Iraq. Moreover, many Taliban leaders are trying to negotiate some kind of deal with the government. Some of these settlements have already been made, and now the Taliban have one less ally and one more target. The terror campaign could go on, intensely, for a year or two. But eventually, the "fighting" Taliban are going to run out of money, men and places to hide.
The Afghan Taliban have been forced to recruit more of their terrorists, especially the suicide bombers, from other countries. Pakistan is still the main source, despite Pakistani efforts to shut down the hundreds (out of thousands) of religious schools that specialize in finding and indoctrinating potential suicide bombers. One thing Afghan and Pakistani officials can finally agree on is that the Taliban, at least the violent, anti-government version, has to go. Both countries are trying to coordinate their efforts to separate the milder ("we only want to mess with our own people") Taliban from the more extreme ("we want to mess with everyone") types. The Taliban are still mainly a Pushtun problem, but there are over 40 million Pushtuns in the region, with two-thirds of them in Pakistan. There's no immediate threat of a general Pushtun rebellion (for a united "Pushtunstan"), but the ten percent or so of Pushtuns who are enthusiastic about the Taliban are a big problem on both sides of the border. That's because the "bad" Taliban have turned into fanatic religious terrorists. Fueled by money from the drug gangs (who pay, in part, to ensure that the Taliban do not attack the heroin trade) and religious fanaticism, the Taliban have become a danger to those who created them (the Pakistani government) nearly two decades ago. Both Afghans and Pakistanis agree that it's time this beast got put down. NATO and the U.S. are also keen to crush the Taliban, but want it all gone. This has been a constant source of friction between NATO and the local (Afghan and Pakistani) rulers. The U.S. is also unhappy with (and increasingly vocal about), continued Pakistani government involvement with the Taliban. Afghans take this sort of thing for granted, but the Pakistanis are particularly upset when NATO and American officials openly discuss the ties between Pakistani intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban. Pakistan denies such ties exist, but no one in the region believes that.
The Taliban terror campaign is not just about grabbing headlines. It's also an ancient Afghan tactic aimed at changing the minds of senior officials, especially those in police and intelligence work. In the last few weeks, the police chief of Kandahar and several senior intelligence officials have been killed by Taliban assassins. An attempt on the Defense Minister was halted at the last minute. All this has persuaded more Afghan leaders to back off. There is always the option of stealing all you can and making plans to flee the country. This is widely recognized, at all levels of Afghan society, as a prudent aspiration. For example, the government tends to refuse to take back Afghans who have gotten to the West and been refused asylum. Afghan officials are often quite outspoken about how if someone succeeds in escaping Afghanistan, they should not be punished with forced return. But most Afghans are too poor or timid to flee. However, the spread of cell phones and video (via cheap pirated CDs and DVDs) has made more Afghans, especially the young, aware that there's a larger, much more pleasant, world out there. A minority of the youth want to crush this new culture, and see the Taliban as a means to that end. But most Afghans want a better life, either in Afghanistan, or somewhere else.
To deal with the growing Taliban use of terrorism, the Afghan government has been beefing up its intelligence capabilities. This is a tedious process, as recruiting (especially screening) and training operatives takes time. But the process has been going on for years, and the Afghan security forces now have a growing number of effective intel specialists. This is one reason why a disproportionate number of Taliban terror attacks are against the intelligence forces.
Meanwhile, the biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban, but corruption (and the resulting damage to the economy and effective government) and drugs (opium and heroin). These are the problems that make most Afghans nervous, miserable and, too often, dead. While the Taliban often do reduce the corruption a bit, they replace it with their own destructive (to the economy, and happiness-in-general) policies. But what destroys most public support is the Taliban partnership with the drug gangs. The Taliban have been using the heroin trade as a source of financing since the 1990s, and Afghans will never forgive them for that.
April 21, 2011: In the West, twelve Iranian road construction personnel, and three Afghan colleagues, were released after being held three days by kidnappers. Local tribal leaders brokered the deal, which may have involved money, but definitely involved promises of bloody and swift retribution by the Iranians.
April 20, 2011: The leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (and two followers) was captured in northern Afghanistan (Kunduz). This makes about twenty Uzbek Islamic terrorists captured up there in the last two months, and many more killed or wounded. Uzbekistan, which is rather more of a police state than Afghanistan, has become so dangerous for Islamic militants, that dozens of them have fled south to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those that settled down in northern Afghanistan have been the source of much of the terrorist activity up there in the last few months. As foreigners, they are easier to spot. A cell phone equipped civilian population has been eager to rat these murderous fanatics out.