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.
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."
A third contributing factor might be far more germane to the Taliban's future; there are growing signs of a serious, three-way split within a once hierarchical movement dominated by a single religious leader.
The first indications of a split came soon after the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001. Wahid Mojdah, an Afghan court official who worked in the Taliban foreign ministry, said some fighters became active in the armed resistance to the new government headed by President Hamid Karzai. Others began cooperating with authorities and some fled to Pakistan, hoping to eventually return under an amnesty. The last group is the largest, he said, and includes some ex-ministers.
"There are a lot of them already in touch with the central government," Mojdah said. "They want to find a way to cooperate." Karzai has offered an olive branch to this group, saying they are welcome to return and help rebuild the country, except for a handful who have committed crimes or acts of terrorism.
Recently, Mojdah and others said, there had been a further split among the fighters. Last year, a Taliban commander named Akbar Agha announced he was forming Jaish-e-Muslimeen in a challenge to the rule of Mohammad Omar, the longtime Taliban commander who is being hunted by U.S. troops.
Some sources said Agha was an anti-Soviet fighter in the 1980s and a latecomer to the Taliban. According to several analysts, Agha objected to Omar's attempts to both reorganize the group and put his loyalists in charge of running the insurgency in key provinces. The mainline Taliban accused Agha of indiscipline and corruption.
Agha's group has asserted responsibility for kidnapping the three U.N. workers Oct. 28, a daring, first-ever assault against Westerners in the heavily guarded capital. But Yusufzai, the journalist, said Jaish-e-Muslimeen had used the tactic before, kidnapping several Turkish and Indian highway workers during the last two years. Most were released after a ransom was paid.
Analysts said the new kidnappings, as well as the suicide bombing on a street of tourist handicraft shops, were troubling signs that Jaish-e-Muslimeen and the mainstream Taliban movement might be moving toward tactics inspired by al Qaeda and used against U.S. forces in Iraq. Even during the decade-long fight against Soviet occupation, Afghan fighters never carried out suicide bombings, Afghan observers said.
"There's a saying in Afghanistan: When an Afghan attacks, he first looks around for an escape, an exit," Yusufzai said.
Still, Yusufzai and others said they believed the suicide attack and kidnappings indicated a borrowing of al Qaeda tactics by one group rather than a major new influence on the Afghan conflict. They said mainstream Taliban forces were probably maintaining a low profile, waiting to strike if the new government faltered or foreign troops began to withdraw.
"The majority of the Taliban are inactive," Yusufzai said. "They are not fighting. They are not supporting Karzai or anyone else." But he said there might be as many as several thousand men willing to die, if the Taliban called for their aid.
"The Taliban believe they have time," he said. "They think they can bide their time and wait."