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Afghanistan war: How Taliban tactics are evolving

Often portrayed as mindless fanatics, the sophistication of Taliban military tactics in the Afghanistan war have impressed US military officials.

By Roy GutmanMcClatchy Newspapers / March 15, 2010

Afghanistan war: Former members of Taliban look on during a ceremony to hand over weapons to the Afghan government in Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday.

Reza Shirmohammadi/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Although they're often portrayed as mindless fanatics, the militant Islamists' "life experience" from their years in the wilderness, their study of American military tactics and their analysis of the Karzai government's shortcomings have helped reverse their fortunes, U.S. intelligence experts say.

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With President Barack Obama sending at least 30,000 additional American troops to knock the Taliban off-balance and a U.S.-led offensive in Helmand province, a better understanding of today's Taliban is central to the effort to defeat them and to begin withdrawing some American troops from Afghanistan in summer 2011.

While much is made of the recent arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan and the deaths of others in U.S. unmanned drone attacks, the group appears to be a movement in transition, with greater sophistication along with limited central control and considerable autonomy for its local commanders in Afghanistan.

Western intelligence officials cite varied signs of the "new" Taliban:

  • During and after every military operation, top Taliban leaders — who intelligence officials think move along the Afghan-Pakistani border but sometimes retreat to Karachi and other Pakistani cities — routinely run circles around the Karzai government with rapid-response public relations.
  • Some Taliban still fight as they did a decade ago, in flip-flops and traditional baggy pants, but the hard-core "Taliban cavalry" is equipped with North Face jackets, good boots, warm clothing and swift motorbikes purchased in Pakistan.
  • The Taliban made some 8,000 improvised explosive devices last year, an astonishing rate of almost 22 a day. "An enemy that can generate 8,000 IEDS and bring 8,000 IEDS to bear and have a major effect, we ought to hire the J-4, the logistician," said a top general with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force.
  • Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a 67-article code of conduct for his fighters last summer, ordering them to protect the civilian population.
  • Based on debriefings of some 4,000 Taliban detainees captured over the past four to five years, the ISAF general concludes that the insurgents are motivated to seize power either by conquest or by negotiation and to establish the rule of law in the areas they control. Taliban fighters say they want to bring Shariah, Islamic law, to rural areas where government officials are known to be corrupt.