The Taliban have been around for nearly two decades, and have become quite corrupt. This is a quite common progression for fanatic organizations. The religious angle provides a powerful, and culturally respected, tool for terrorizing those who would not do as they are told. Like other successful organized crime organizations, the Taliban have their internal squabbles, but still maintain an overall public image and public relations effort. While in the early 1990s most Taliban were out to bring (Islamic) law and order to a chaotic Afghanistan (then in its second decade of war), it's all about money now. The few real religious zealots left in their ranks are tolerated and ignored. If these fanatics interfere with money making activities, they die.
Opium has made some Afghans very rich, but 90 percent of the population are either not part of the drug culture, or are victims of it. For every Afghan that is producing drugs, or carrying a gun to protect that production, another Afghans is an addict. These addicts beat their wives and children, killing people while stealing to buy more drugs and cause more grief and mayhem than the average Taliban gunman. Most Afghans are very anti-drug. This is bad for the Taliban, which cannot exist without the drug money.
In terms of popularity, the Taliban have been on a downward spiral since the late 1990s. While they were initially hailed for ending (for the most part) the civil war that followed the Russian pullout, the civil war only ended in the south, among the Pushtun factions. The non-Pushtun tribes in the north never surrendered. There's little Taliban violence in the north, and what is usually reported as Taliban activity in the north is drug related. But since the Taliban have maintained some unity, there is general enthusiasm for making some kind of peace deal with the government. This is the traditional Afghan way. If some group is organized and has a lot of weapons, you try to negotiate. The Taliban have already demonstrated a willingness to make this work, by offering to sever all ties with al Qaeda and similar groups. Their puritanical lifestyle police attitudes are already collapsing under the weight of all that money and the consumer goods it buys. That, and factionalism has given the Taliban leadership more headaches than all the foreign troops and Afghan security forces. The Taliban are also looking for a way out.
Most Afghans are concerned about the economy (especially unemployment) and corruption, but the biggest problem is seen as the tribal violence. This mayhem is a part of Afghan culture, but it has been out-of-control since the late 1970s and most Afghans just want it to stop. Then there's the cultural mayhem. Since the 1970s, millions of Afghan have been exposed to a rapidly changing modern world. The medieval Afghan culture (at least outside the cities) was not prepared for this. But things like TV, cell phones, education for girls (and in general) and modern medicine have had a tremendous impact on traditional Afghan culture. The Taliban represent opposition to the modern world, and that's a battle no one has ever won. Most of Afghanistan has been enjoying peace, and growing prosperity. Because of modern communications, news of this has spread to the areas where violence is still raging. The people there (mostly in the south) are not happy with their situation. Most of the Afghan refugees caught, around the world, trying to get into Western countries, are Pushtuns from southern Afghanistan. Those left behind want help.
The Taliban organization is divided on how to deal with their inability to defeat, or even hurt much, the foreign troops. NATO forces are increasingly going after drug production, especially the labs that refine the opium down into heroin and morphine. This hits the Taliban right in the wallet. Without all that drug money, the Taliban becomes another small piece of the Afghan mosaic. None of the Taliban leaders want to lose the fringe benefits (new homes, SUVs, additional wives, lots of guns). You can see the homes (fortified compounds, in the Afghan tradition, but newly build and stuffed full of consumer goods) and SUVs all over southern Afghanistan. But NATO intelligence has identified more and more of the key people in the Taliban, and troops are tracking down these guys, preferably to arrest them (and obtain even more information). To the Taliban, negotiating a peace deal looks very much like the lesser of two evils (continuing to fight a losing battle.)
Despite massive efforts (thousands of roadside bombs and suicide bomb attacks), the Taliban have only managed to kill 633 foreign troops so far this year. While that's about 21 percent more than last year, it's less than one percent of the foreign troops in Afghanistan. You don't have to be a math whiz to realize that this is not enough damage to drive the foreigners out. The Taliban are depending more on domestic politics in NATO countries, where opposition politicians complain about the cost of supporting troops in Afghanistan, trying to bring peace to those who can't do it themselves.
The Taliban can also take comfort in the general failure of anti-corruption efforts (forced on the government by foreign donors threatening to withhold aid) to do much damage. Corrupt officials who are stupid or friendless get offered up to the anti-corruption prosecutors, while the majority of thieves remain free. If you are well enough connected, you cannot be touched, no matter how strong the evidence. The Taliban are also comforted by the fact that the national police are making very slow progress in improving their personnel and capabilities. The big problem is the inability of foreign nations to recruit enough of their own people to serve as instructors. Training Afghan cops is a frustrating and dangerous job, and so is Afghanistan in general.
November 6, 2010: Iran has admitted it has provided $500 million in aid to Afghanistan. This is less than one percent of what Afghanistan has received from Western donors. Much of the Iranian aid appears to have been bribes, not money for rebuilding the economy or other common-good type projects.