The banter on the bus rumbling through the Afghan countryside from Kabul to the Logar province is friendly.
Hanging casually from a strap is an Arab commander who says he has just left an underground Taliban military complex in the Afghan capital. With US jets scouring the region, he cracks a smile at the chiding suggestion from several passengers that he maybe ought to be hiding from the Americans. He reaches over and pats his firearm. "The only thing they'll capture is my dead body," he boasts.
Rather than demoralize the Taliban, say analysts in Peshawar, Pakistan, the US bombing is so far bolstering Afghan internal support for the Islamic rulers and their Al Qaeda associates, which
had begun to falter in recent years.
"The air campaign has given the Taliban a false sense of optimism, but it has also rallied the population around them," says Shamim Shaheed, bureau chief of the The Nation newspaper in Peshawar, who still has good contacts inside Afghanistan. "The Arabs, who are often in leadership positions, set the tone. Afghans know that the Arabs are not just full of hot air. They are genuinely prepared to be martyred for their cause."
Taliban and Al Qaeda movements on the ground over the past week suggest that embattled forces inside the country are advancing preparations for an extended struggle. Mules and horses can be seen winding through steep paths, loaded with heavy guns and ammunition destined for desolate mountain peaks.
Arab fighters in fresh, new uniforms scramble through the doors of civilian homes and small shops of Kabul as US jets scream overhead. During a lull in the US-led bombing, religious students scurry to stack ammunition cases into the trunk of a yellow taxi.
Bolstered by early optimism that they can stand up to the US onslaught, the Taliban regime has emptied arms caches and is now handing out weapons to the mostly Pashtun civilian population. Pakistani military analysts say that this is a sign of the Taliban's growing confidence in their own support base.
At the Logar airfield, 30 miles south of Kabul, a young villager, Salim, walks in an onion field cradling a new firearm, which he was handed just a day earlier by Taliban officers. His new weapon includes a grenade-launcher beneath its barrel. "The Taliban want me to patrol the mountain peaks around the Arab camp here at Kunjak," he says, trudging off to take up his military detail.
In Washington, Defense Department officials repeat that their objectives are to break the Taliban's grip on power and to capture Osama bin Laden and his associates by striking at the heart of the Afghan regime's military strength.
Those efforts may eventually succeed. But for now, the Afghan regime and its supporters are displaying an esprit de corps driven by steadfast religious beliefs and an intimate knowledge of guerrilla tactics.
Even the idea of surrendering major cities to US-led ground troops does not appear to phase many of the Taliban's top commanders. Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, commander-in-chief of the Taliban's southern command, recently in Peshawar, told The News, a Pakistani daily: "Remember that the Soviets also controlled several major Afghan cities once. What happened to them?" Mr. Haqqani is a former anti-Soviet mujahideen fighter who is believed to be Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's top military strategist.
The vast majority of Taliban fighters are not the veterans of the 1979-1989 war against Soviet occupation. Rather, the young religious students, aged between 16 and 30, are often their orphaned sons, many of them steeled in an ideology of holy war by teachers who fought the Soviets.
Filling out their ranks, sometimes in commanding positions or fighting in separate units, are Afghanistan's foreign fighters, who are mostly Arab but also include Chechens and Pakistanis. Most of these outside fighters have been trained in guerrilla tactics at Afghan military camps, loosely modeled on the US's own commando schools.
Indeed, in Kabul, Arab fighters - such as the commander riding the bus to Logar - are more visible than ever. They have switched from wearing traditional Afghan clothing to new green and black commando uniforms. They sport caps instead of turbans. These foreign fighters, estimated at from 5,000 to 15,000 in total, form what Western military experts call the "sharp end" of the Taliban fighting forces.
The US Department of Defense estimates that there are about 20,000 Taliban troops stationed along the front lines, north of Kabul, fighting against the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
Al Qaeda loyalists, backed by Kashmiri mujahideen, most of them from Pakistan, help hold onto the heights to the south and east of the ex-Soviet airbase at Bagram. Pentagon officials say that 10,000 Taliban troops are currently dug into a World War I-style labyrinth of trenches in which heavy guns and even tanks are buried up to their barrels. The only thing coming and going from this six-mile-long Taliban front line are Toyota pick-up trucks, not easily identified from the air as "military targets."
"Only a chemical attack could easily dislodge these fighters from this network of trenches," says an Afghan who has spent time on the front line.
In other strategic areas, such as inside the Ainak Copper mine near the Logar airfield, south of Kabul, Arab fighters have based themselves inside the mine itself. Airstrikes last week produced several casualties in the area. Residents witnessed several Arab fighters being transported by ambulance away from the mine.
"Around 300 Arabs are inside the mine on any given day," says a baker, who supplies loaves of bread to the mine fighters.
"They have strong communications links, including satellite telephones with video devices and also a television. Before all this, Osama used to drop in for a night or two to talk with the commander, a Yemeni."
Despite the Taliban's preparations for an extended fight, some Afghans still quietly express doubt about the regime's staying power. They say they are hoping for a quick end to Afghanistan's latest war.
As yet another US air raid begins in Kabul, a shopkeeper standing beside his bicycle looks up into the skies. "Do it! Do it! Quick and get it over with. Free us from this cage!"
A former Kabul Times reporter traveled to Jalalabad and Kabul, Afghanistan, and contributed to this report.