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New guns, new drive for Taliban

Rebel leader says they can now shoot down US aircraft.

By Scott Baldauf, Ashraf Khan / September 26, 2005



KHOST, AFGHANISTAN; AND CHAMAN, PAKISTAN

An internal debate within the Taliban - whether to launch increasingly aggressive attacks against the US-led coalition or to allow the insurgency to bleed the Afghan government over time - has been settled this year, according to a rebel commander and Afghan security officials.

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In the most violent year of their insurgency to date, the Taliban have gone on the offensive, launching more pitched battles in an effort to persuade the international community and Afghans that this remains very much a nation at war, says Mullah Gul Mohammad, a front-line commander for Jaish-e Muslimeen, a recently reconciled Taliban splinter group.

"For the past many days we [the Taliban and the Jaish] have been fighting together against our common enemies," says Mullah Mohammad, who says he traveled from Afghanistan to Chaman, Pakistan, for an interview. The insurgents are flush with new weapons - including surface-to-air missiles - and cash, he says, and are pausing only to see if the US military decides to draw down forces following the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. "If they stay, we would launch our attacks anew."

In the four years since the fall of the Taliban government, there have been many moments when it appeared that the Taliban insurgency had breathed its last breath. But this year was different. The Taliban have launched a series of attacks that has raised this year's death toll - 1,200 civilians and military personnel so far - to a wartime high. Their attacks show increasing sophistication, US and Afghan officials say, and a UN report now warns that the Taliban may be receiving tactical training from jihadists returning from Iraq.

With an apparently revitalized Taliban insurgency, the American military and its NATO allies must now decide whether their strategy needs retooling, and American diplomats could have increasing difficulty convincing NATO allies to take over leadership of the Afghan counterinsurgency campaign. It could be a hard sell, indeed. Even US military commanders say it is too soon to count the Taliban out.

"I'm not ready to sign up to the fact that Taliban are crumbling," said Gen. Jason Kamiya, operational commander for the US-led Combined Forces Command, at a recent press conference at Bagram Airbase. "There still will be an enemy insurgency next spring."

Maybe only 800 Taliban

At first glance, the Taliban appear to be a weak force. US military estimates suggest there may be only 800 Taliban fighters left, many of them holding out in villages along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and in rugged mountainous regions of south and central Afghanistan. One clear sign of Taliban weakness was seen on election day, where no significant incidents of violence disrupted voting, despite a call for a boycott by Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi.

Yet, US and Afghan intelligence sources suggest that the Taliban have shown recent signs of confidence - or desperation. Roadside bombings have increased 40 percent this year over last year, according to a report by the UN. These bombings have become increasingly effective, using "shaped" explosives used by Iraqi militants against US forces there, set off by sophisticated remote-control devices.

Perhaps more important, the Taliban are sticking around to fight US forces after they detonate roadside bombs, using heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and Kalashnikovs to pin down US troops and increase casualties.

When they are captured, the Taliban often carry high-tech radio equipment, and are even wearing new sneakers, all signs that the insurgents have found new financial support.

"They are updating their technology," says Gov. Mirajuddin Pathan, governor of Khost Province, which shares a 110-mile border with Pakistan's tumultuous Waziristan district. "They have new remote-control devices, new explosives. They never stay quiet. But now, we have better intelligence of what they are planning."

Just last week, national intelligence police swept through the dormitories of Khost University and arrested eight people. The leader appears to have been a third-year engineering student from Afghanistan's central Wardak Province. He and the other suspects were captured with 200 pounds of explosives and two sophisticated remote-control systems.

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