KABUL, Afghanistan—Nearly four years after a U.S.-led military intervention toppled them from power, the Taliban has re-emerged as a potent threat to stability in Afghanistan.
Though it's a far cry from the mass movement that overran most of the country in the 1990s, today's Taliban is fighting a guerrilla war with new weapons, including portable anti-aircraft missiles, and equipment bought with cash sent through Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, according to Afghan and Western officials. While it was in power, the Taliban provided safe haven to bin Laden and al-Qaida.
The money is coming from "rogue elements and factional elements living in the Middle East," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak asserted in an interview with Knight Ridder.
"Al-Qaida is channeling money and equipment," said Lt. George Hughbanks, a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Zabul province, one of the worst hit by the Taliban insurgency.
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The Taliban is now a disparate assemblage of radical groups estimated to number several thousand, far fewer than when it was in power before November 2001. The fighters operate in small cells that occasionally come together for specific missions. They're unable to hold territory or defeat coalition troops.
They're linked by a loose command structure and an aim of driving out U.S.-led coalition and NATO troops, toppling U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai and reimposing hard-line Islamic rule on Afghanistan, according to Afghan and Western officials and experts.
The Taliban insurgents have adopted some of the terrorist tactics that their Iraqi counterparts have used to stoke popular anger at the Iraqi government and the U.S. military. They've stalled reconstruction and fomented sectarian tensions in a country that remains mired in poverty and corruption, illegal drugs and ethnic and political hatred.
Their tactics include attacks with homemade explosives, and beheadings, assassinations and kidnappings targeting public officials and others who cooperate in international democracy-building efforts and reconstruction.
The violence continued Thursday. A homemade bomb planted by the Taliban killed two U.S. soldiers near the southern city of Kandahar, bringing to at least 44 the number killed in hostile actions in the past six months.
The new American ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald E. Neumann, said Thursday that the Taliban had "absolutely no chance" of derailing Sept. 18's parliamentary and provincial council polls because security would be too tight.
The Taliban's new tactics, however, suggest to some experts that the surge in violence that began five months ago is more than an effort to impede the elections. These experts fear that the Taliban's resurgence may be part of an al-Qaida strategy aimed at keeping the U.S. military stressed and bleeding not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan.
"I think they (al-Qaida) are opening a second front," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst who's now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "I don't think the elections are really the focus."
"These are people who see this in broader terms," he said.
A Western diplomat in Kabul agreed, saying Taliban propaganda links the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They themselves will often make the linkage between Afghanistan and Iraq and, in a sense, putting it out there in terms of a whole," he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
U.S. officials in Washington said they had no proof of such an al-Qaida-coordinated strategy. But an American defense official said he couldn't exclude it, and that he and other U.S. officials were concerned about the lessons the Taliban was drawing from Iraq.
"It would be extremely naive of us not to believe that the enemy is a thinking, learning, adapting enemy," said the American defense official, who requested anonymity because the issue is an intelligence matter. "There is certainly learning that is going on and we have to remind ourselves of not falling into the trap of not understanding it."
"It's potentially much larger than Iraq and Afghanistan," he added.
What some of the experts now dub the "neo-Taliban" is said to comprise four components:
_ Most of the original top leaders who were never captured, including Mullah Omar, who founded the movement among members of Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group. Other senior leaders include Mullah Dadullah, the former Taliban intelligence chief; Maulavi Obaidullah, the former defense minister; and Jalalludin Haqqani, a prominent commander of the struggle to drive Soviet troops out of the country in the 1980s and former Taliban minister of tribal affairs. Their fighters are said to include loyalists from the original movement and newly indoctrinated Afghan students from radical Islamic schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"Great numbers of Muslims support us in spite of (President) Bush's wish," Dadullah asserted in an interview July 20 with Al-Jazeera. "We have continued to receive support from our Muslim brothers across the globe."
"Cooperation between us and al-Qaida is very strong," he said.
_ Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hizb-e-Islami party, the main recipients of U.S.- funded weapons that Pakistan funneled to the mujahedeen groups that fought the 1979-89 Soviet occupation. Hekmatyar, a fervent Islamist, was prime minister in the government of the mujahedeen parties that took power in 1992 and then began fighting among themselves. He fled to Iran after the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Returning after it fell, he called on his former foes to join him in battling the U.S.-led coalition and Karzai.
_ Pakistani Islamic extremists, foreign jihadis and al-Qaida fighters from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Arab countries whom sympathetic Pashtun tribes in Pakistan's tribal belt sheltered after the U.S.-led intervention.
_ Afghan drug merchants, lumber and gem smugglers, and criminal gangs who cover their activities by portraying themselves as defending Afghanistan from non-Muslims.
The Taliban seized power in the 1990s after decades of civil war and imposed an Islamist regime. Many of its followers died in the U.S.-led intervention, and others, including several senior leaders, switched sides under a government amnesty program.
Instead of collapsing, however, the movement transformed itself. When the snows melted this past spring, the Taliban surprised Afghan and U.S. commanders with its renewed insurgency.
"We were all under the assumption that things in the country were under control," Defense Minister Wardak said.
Afghan and Western officials alleged that the escalating insurgency is being aided by Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.
Islamabad, they charged, seeks a weak government in Kabul that it can influence. It also wants to keep tensions boiling in Pashtun-dominated areas on the frontier to block a settlement of a decades-old border dispute that the new Afghan Parliament is expected to try to end, they said.
"Pakistan is ... fanning the flames," charged Latfullah Maashal, the chief spokesman of the Afghan Interior Ministry. "The Pakistanis ... do not want to see a strong, peaceful and prosperous country (Afghanistan)."
The Taliban is being allowed to maintain arms depots, training camps and sanctuaries in the lawless tribal belt on Pakistan's side of the frontier, he said.
Islamabad denies the charge, saying it stopped supporting the Taliban after al-Qaida's Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
In the Al-Jazeera interview, Dadullah denied receiving Pakistani help.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE TALIBAN:
The group emerged from Afghanistan's southeastern Pashtun heartland, bordering Pakistan, as a ragtag Islamic militia in 1994. With support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it became a mass movement of Islamic zealots who took on the feuding anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups that were running the government.
The militants overran most of the country by 1998, at first welcomed for imposing order after years of chaos and bloodshed. But they became despised for their stern brand of Islam, which banned music and dancing, required men to grow untrimmed beards and prohibited women from working. They hosted Osama bin Laden until they were driven from power by a U.S.-led coalition in November 2001.
Since then, the Taliban leaders have been fugitives with prices on their heads, and remain hated in much of Afghanistan.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USAFGHAN-TALIBAN
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