U.S. Major General Eric Olson says Taliban militants now lack cohesion and are a fading force in the southern and southeastern Afghan provinces that have been their strongholds in recent years. "It seems very clear to us," Olson said, "given the disjointed and uncoordinated effort that the Taliban has been able to launch, that those type of leaders -- [and] Mullah Omar specifically -- are not exercising effective command and control over Taliban operations in Afghanistan."
Just last month, Olson had warned U.S. policymakers against reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan. He had argued that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda continue to pose a grave security threat. But at a Kabul news conference on 7 March, Olson said he sees a "dramatic decrease" in the number of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. Still, he says, the U.S.-led coalition forces are preparing operations against what has come to be known in Afghanistan as an annual spring offensive. "There has been an increase in Taliban and enemy activity in the spring [compared to the winter months]. And we anticipate that the enemy has the intention of trying to raise the level of activity this spring."
One reason Olson is confident of a weaker Taliban offensive this spring is an amnesty that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is offering to rank-and-file Taliban fighters.
Olson says about 30 mid-level Taliban fighters already have surrendered their weapons to coalition forces under the offer. He says that since laying down their arms, all 30 have been allowed to return to their villages without facing prosecution or imprisonment. He says one has even been allowed to serve on his local police force.
Ian Kemp is an independent defense analyst based in London. He says the dwindling number of die-hard Taliban fighters is just one reason why fewer Taliban attacks are expected in the coming months. "Certainly since the fall of Afghanistan to the U.S.-led coalition more than three years ago, there has been a constant attrition of the Taliban forces," Kemp said. "The second factor is the improvement in the security situation as a result of greater coordination -- or greater cooperation -- between the U.S.-led coalition operating in Afghanistan and the Pakistan security forces."
Kemp explains that Pakistan's efforts on its side of the border during the past year have seriously hampered the ability of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to organize attacks in Afghanistan: "This has always been a major concern," Kemp said, "that the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda have been able to slip across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, use that as a sanctuary, regroup during the winter months, and then move back into Afghanistan for the spring offensive. But what we've seen over the past year or so is much greater efforts on the part of the Pakistan army and other Pakistan security forces in cooperating with the United States in combating terrorism."
Kemp says he thinks U.S. and NATO efforts to build up the Afghan National Army also have created conditions that encourage Taliban fighters to quit the insurgency against Karzai's government. "The U.S. strategy has always been to build up the strength of the Afghan security forces themselves," Kemp said "This is a slow process which involves the recruitment of Afghan soldiers and then the training across the rank structure from the private soldier to, actually, the generals commanding these forces. This is clearly paying dividends. And it also allows the local people to see that the Afghans are taking a greater responsibility for their own security. General Olson and other senior U.S. commanders would point to this as being one of the big successes."
But not all experts are convinced of General Olson's expectations for the coming spring. Vahid Mojdeh is an Afghan author who has written a book about the Taliban. He told RFE/RL recently that the Taliban remains dangerous for some of the same reasons that Olson sees as signs of coalition success. "They are operating in a very similar way to Al-Qaeda," Mojdeh said, "meaning they have no central command structure and the different groups in each region work [independently of each other]. Therefore, the Taliban is more dangerous because it is n-o-t clear where there will be an attack or where their [next] operation will be. It is because they've grown weaker [in numbers] that they have had to change their guerrilla war tactics. And as time goes by, it is possible that they will become even weaker [in numbers]. But this doesn't mean they will be less dangerous. It is possible that despair will turn them [increasingly] to actions like the suicide attacks we already have witnessed in a few cases."
Nearly 1,100 people have been killed as a result of Taliban-linked violence since late 2003. They include militants, foreign troops, Afghan civilians, aid workers, and government employees.