Afghanistan has witnessed renewed violence over recent months, prompting questions on the progress of U.S. forces in bringing security to the war-torn country, and whether the Taliban are staging a campaign for permanent resurgence. On September 28, in one of the bloodiest attacks since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, a suicide bomber in Kabul rammed a motorcycle into a convoy of buses carrying Afghan military personnel. At least 12 people were killed. The attack, only 10 days after Afghanistan’s landmark parliamentary elections, sent a strong signal not only of the limitations of security in the country, but also of what is being seen as the importation of mujahideen tactics from Iraq, as suicide attacks feature increasingly in the Taliban arsenal. The largest suicide blast occurred on June 1 at the funeral of a Muslim cleric in Kandahar who was critical of the Taliban, which killed 20 people and wounding twice that number. More recently on October 9, an attempt was made against a British Embassy convoy near the city of Kandahar, leaving four security guards injured. Afghan intelligence officials warn of further suicide attacks.
The strength of the Taliban remains difficult to gauge accurately. On several occasions since their fall in 2001 the Taliban have appeared to be on their last legs, with estimates putting their number of active militants at around the 800, mostly hiding out along the Afghan/Pakistan border. The peaceful passing of the September 18 elections appeared to demonstrate that the Taliban remain disorganized and weak. Yet overall, this year has seen an intensification of militancy and a surge in militant violence in the south and east of Afghanistan where the rebel militants are most active. There have been over 1,000 deaths this year since the Taliban stepped up their tactics. The increased sophistication of their methods–including the use of remote-control detonation–accounts for the over 80 U.S. troop fatalities during this period and has prompted warnings in a UN report that the Taliban may be receiving advanced training in tactics from Iraqi veterans, as well as renewed funding given the stockpile of equipment found through captured Taliban. The funding is linked to narcotics production in Afghanistan–the chief world producer of opium, which according to the latest UN report has only shown mixed signs of being reduced (www.unis.unvienna.org). Indeed, the UN report notes how Afghanistan has in the past year moved into actual heroin production (www.paktribune.com).
In addition, what analysts have viewed as a period of relative inactivity, arising out a dispute between the Taliban and the allied Jaysh Muhammad, may no longer apply. The Jaysh Muhammad broke with the Taliban in October 2004 following its brazen kidnapping of UN election workers in Kabul, prompting speculation that there were differences between the groups on tactics: whether to take on the U.S. aggressively and risk a renewed crackdown that could severely damage the Taliban, or wage a slower war of attrition to exhaust the U.S. forces. If reports circulated by the Jaysh Muhammad leadership that differences between the groups have been patched up are true (and the resurgence of violence would appear to support this), the nature of the challenge to U.S. forces will change markedly over the coming months. Both the Jaysh Muhammad and the Taliban now claim a renewed arsenal based on old weapons stores, including a newly discovered cache of shoulder-fired rockets. On September 25 their claim appears to have been vindicated with the downing of a Chinook helicopter in southern Afghanistan, killing five Army National Guardsmen, now admitted by U.S. military investigators. The latest confrontations coming during the week of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Kabul, including rocket attacks exploding in the city hours before her arrival, indicate that the Taliban and Jaysh Muhammad are, at the very least, successfully demonstrating that Afghanistan is still very much a nation at war.