KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Taliban movement suffered a serious psychological and military setback after failing to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential election last month, but the radical Islamic militia still poses a formidable military threat, and one faction has begun carrying out daring, al Qaeda-style urban terrorist attacks, according to Afghan and foreign analysts.
Experts said the movement was beset by leadership rivalries and internal divisions after a year of revived strength and cohesion. They also said the Taliban was increasingly being squeezed by a new Pakistani military offensive along the border, where many Taliban renegades were believed to be hiding.
An Afghan boy sells traditional Afghani bread in Kabul, where three U.N. workers were kidnapped last month. They have not been released.
(Gurinder Osan -- AP)
Since the Oct. 9 election, which was virtually violence-free despite repeated Taliban threats of sabotage, there have been several high-profile attacks in the capital, including an Oct. 23 suicide bombing that killed an American woman and the kidnapping of three United Nations workers five days later. The three are still being held, reportedly by a breakaway Taliban faction known as Jaish-e-Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims.
But Afghan military commanders and government officials, as well as foreigners with knowledge of the Taliban, said they believed such attacks might be more a sign of weakness than strength.
The successful election "told everyone the Taliban was finished. So they wanted to do something spectacular in the middle of Kabul city," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist based in Pakistan who has had frequent contact with the Taliban.
But Taliban fighters can count on the quiet support of perhaps tens of thousands of sympathizers in the largely Pashtun tribal areas of the south, experts said. Most are former Taliban who are not actively fighting or supporting the newly elected government, but are willing to supply Pakistan-based guerrillas with food and shelter.
"In these areas, they have buried their weapons in the ground and are doing their farming," said Gen. Afzul Aman, a senior commander with the newly formed Afghan National Army. "So maybe they will join them again later."
Aman said the Taliban's current tactic was to get a team of three to 10 men inside the country from the rugged mountains on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The team carries out a hit-and-run ambush against Afghan or coalition troops and then retreats across the mountains. Taliban teams also plant roadside explosives and then follow the explosion with a rocket or mortar attack on a convoy.
Most officials and experts concede that much of what is known about the Taliban's current military and political state is guesswork. Estimates of its size range from less than 2,000 armed fighters to more than 10,000.
The militia mostly bases itself on the Pakistani side of the border, where Afghan forces have little on-the-ground intelligence. One Afghan intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Afghan government should have more intelligence agents in Pakistan.
It is also unclear why the Taliban did not attempt any large-scale election day attacks. In the days leading up to the vote, there were scattered attacks on voter registration sites and workers, but the election was largely peaceful, which surprised Afghan security officials.
One theory is that Taliban attack plans were thwarted by the heavy presence of Afghan troops, American soldiers and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which sent in reinforcement troops. Also, Pakistan, reportedly under diplomatic pressure to guarantee a peaceful election, launched a new offensive against Taliban forces in the border areas.
Another theory is that the Taliban recognized that ordinary Afghans wanted to vote, and that the high election-day turnout dissuaded its forces from further alienating the populace by attacking polling places.
"Eight million people all objected to the Taliban," said Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan foreign minister. "With one voice, people have rejected Taliban, extremism, terrorism." The Taliban, he added, "should feel a bigger defeat than the military defeat."