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New guns, new drive for Taliban

Rebel leader says they can now shoot down US aircraft.

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The simplest of the two was designed to set off one land mine in an urban area to attract a crowd. Once a sufficient crowd had gathered, and police officers had arrived to investigate, a second larger explosion would detonate, inflicting a heavy death toll.

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"This has become rather ordinary technique," says a senior officer for the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, based in Khost.

He picks up a black box of circuit boards, wires, and a battery. "The technique is very old, it belongs to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar," he says, referring to the commander of Hizb-e Islami, a radical Islamist party that fought against the Soviets. "The technology is new, from Japan and China. The training is Al Qaeda."

Pakistan, which many Afghan officials believe is continuing to support the Taliban movement, says that it has killed 353 militants in its border tribal areas since March 2004. Some 175 of these militants have been foreigners such as Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens, Chechens, and a few Arabs.

This month, Pakistani authorities also announced a major haul of explosives and weaponry after an early September raid of a madrassah near the Waziristan town of Miranshah. The madrassah, run by a relative of Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, had become a storage depot for weapons. Twenty-one suspects, 11 of them foreigners, were arrested.

Among the items found at the madrassah was a small battery-operated remote-control plane with a wide-angle camera lens, apparently used to track US military troop movements inside Afghanistan.

US military commanders admit that 2005 has been the bloodiest year yet in the Afghan campaign - with 82 US military fatalities this year. But they insist that the higher death toll comes from a more aggressive US strategy to take the war to the enemy.

Taliban commanders and their allies say that it is their own strategy that has changed, and they boast that they now have the finances, equipment, and motivation to fight on for years, or even decades.

"Both the Taliban and Jaish have weapons and arsenal which were being piled up in the past several decades; we have enough for centuries to come," says Gul Mohammad, one of a few top commanders for Jaish-e Muslimeen. He is on Pakistan's most wanted list.

Newly acquired stingers

Mohammad says the Jaish, with help from Hizb-e Islami, have recently uncovered a large cache of old weapons, including American shoulder-fired rockets that are capable of shooting down US military planes and helicopters.

In 2002, US forces found an old cache of 30 such rockets as part of a wider effort to collect any US-made Stinger missiles leftover from the anti-Soviet jihad. Over 2,000 Stingers were sent to Afghanistan via Pakistan in the 1980s, and the weapons proved extremely effective against Soviet airpower. As of early this year, no US aircraft has been shot down by a Stinger.

"We have found a new depot of weapons in Afghanistan and we can now strike down American aircraft and helicopters," Gul Mohammad declared enthusiastically. A US Chinook helicopter crashed Sunday in southern Afghanistan, killing all five crew members. The Taliban claim to have shot it down, but the US military said that did not appear to be the case. The crash remains under investigation.

Aside from weapons, Gul Mohammad says the broader insurgent movement is now adequately funded through zakat, the traditional tithe that Muslims pay to their mosques as charity for the poor and disadvantaged.

Khost officials such as Governor Pathan say that the peaceful elections are a sign that the Taliban are disorganized, weak, and on the run. It is certainly true that the Taliban have had an ongoing debate about how aggressively they should fight against the US, whose airpower killed hundreds if not thousands of Taliban fighters with high-flying B-52 bombers in October 2001.

But while the Jaish recently broke with the Taliban in Oct. 2004 - with its brazen kidnapping of three UN election workers in the middle of a Kabul traffic jam - Gul Mohammad says that these differences have been settled for now.

"Our differences were based on some principles, but even those were just for a temporary phase," Gul Mohammad says. "We are fighting a common enemy."