KABUL, Afghanistan, April 16 -- The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan predicted Saturday that the Taliban militia would collapse as a viable fighting force over the next several months as rank-and-file members accept a reconciliation offer from the Afghan government.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno warned, however, that remaining Taliban extremists financed and trained by al Qaeda allies may attempt to compensate by staging a high-profile attack in Afghanistan within the next six to nine months.
"As these terrorists' capabilities grow more and more limited, the hard-core fanatics will grow more and more desperate to try and do something to change the course of events in Afghanistan," Barno said at a news conference in Kabul, the capital. "I expect they will be looking . . . to garner media publicity and to try and score some type of propaganda victory."
Barno said he did not have specific intelligence as to where the Taliban might strike.
Earlier Saturday, a senior Taliban official said in an audio tape released to the Reuters news agency that militia leaders were planning to shift from guerrilla warfare to terrorist-style attacks.
Maulvi Abdul Kabir, who is considered second in the Taliban hierarchy, said the group was training suicide bombers to target government officials, foreign forces and aid workers in major cities and to infiltrate various security forces.
"The change of tactics is an easy way for us to have a longer-term war of attrition and would also not cost many lives for us," Kabir reportedly said on the tape.
Since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan has largely been spared the sort of insurgent attacks common in Iraq that have resulted in high death tolls. The Taliban had also threatened to disrupt Afghanistan's first direct presidential election last October, but voting proceeded relatively peacefully.
But Taliban attacks on Afghan and foreign military forces and government officials have increased in recent weeks following a winter lull, Barno said, and are at the same level as in the spring of 2004 and 2003.
Several incidents have also been reported in Kabul in the past several days, including the discovery of a small amount of TNT on a trash truck attempting to enter the U.S. military headquarters compound Thursday.
Lt. Cindy Moore, a military spokeswoman, said the explosive material, which was stuffed in the well of a headlight and detected by a bomb-sniffing dog, was very degraded and not attached to a detonating device. Moore said she did not know the driver's nationality or whether that person had been detained.
Foreign workers in the capital have been on edge since last Sunday, when armed assailants seized a U.S. citizen and forced him into the trunk of a car. According to U.S. Embassy officials in Kabul, the man used a lug wrench to unlock the trunk from the inside and jumped out of the vehicle while it was speeding away. Afghan investigators have arrested three suspects in the incident.
Neither Barno nor Afghan officials would disclose how many Taliban members have accepted President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation offer, which seeks to bring in members hiding in Afghanistan or in other countries. Under the arrangement, Taliban members must recognize the legitimacy of the elected government in exchange for assurances that they will not face arrest by foreign or Afghan forces.
Human rights groups and some Afghans say they fear the offer will enable many former Taliban members to escape justice for past wrongdoing.
Members of Karzai's administration have stressed that the offer does not constitute a permanent amnesty program and does not extend to roughly 100 top Taliban leaders implicated in serious crimes. A commission charged with determining the exact details of the program has progressed slowly, but some Taliban members have already begun negotiating with U.S. military commanders and Afghan officials.
The U.S. military has reportedly issued identification cards to several dozen former Taliban militiamen stating that the bearer had been vetted and should not be arrested.
Barno said he believed that large numbers of the Taliban force, which once numbered in the thousands, would eventually accept the offer.
"More and more Taliban realize they don't want to be in this fight that goes against the tide of history here in Afghanistan any longer," he said.