In some of the bloodiest fighting since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, U.S.-led coalition forces recently have engaged several large groups of militants who have tried to hold on to strategic ground. U.S. troops have been able to call in air strikes by American and British warplanes against the concentrated Taliban forces with devastating results.
Since last week, about 100 suspected Taliban fighters have been killed in battles across southern and eastern Afghanistan that have followed the pattern. Deaths among antiterrorism coalition forces have included nine Afghan government soldiers, two U.S. Marines, and one Afghan police officer.
Paul Beaver is a London-based independent defense analyst who thinks the insurgents' new tactics reflect significant changes on the ground this spring.
"There's no doubt at all that the militants in Afghanistan -- mainly the Taliban but also, of course, elements of Al-Qaeda -- are now working in a much more organized way. They have had time to form up. They are trying to hold ground. Particularly in the southeast of the country on the borders of Pakistan," Beaver says.
Beaver says he thinks the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have been forced to use more conventional military tactics because of a well-tuned U.S. strategy that has been developed against their classic Afghan guerilla-warfare techniques.
"I don't think [the Taliban] are desperate. I think that they are actually having to adjust their tactics to the tactics of NATO and the western allies. For the first time in Afghanistan, I do detect that the West is on the front foot. Not only in the north of the country around Mazar-i-Sharif do we see pacification of the countryside. We see very large amounts of support for the Western way of doing things. There is a lot of issues out there still to be resolved. But there is an increase of military activity. And I think the Taliban is really on the back foot -- at the moment," Beaver says.
Beaver says the coming months will show whether the Taliban's new approach will be seen as successful -- or as a tactical error.
"The Taliban could well be making a mistake by trying to fight as a conventional army. If you are the commander, you also want to be able to fight the enemy on the ground of your choosing. For so long, the coalition forces have been fighting the enemy on the ground of their (the enemy's) choosing. This is changing. Al-Qaeda is losing, the Taliban is losing, the insurgents are losing that capability [of choosing where to fight] because they no longer have some of their best people. They've been either killed or captured. And that will make a difference," Beaver says.
Ian Kemp also is an independent defense analyst in London who thinks the change of tactics by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is significant. Kemp notes that the Afghan population, as a whole, is less sympathetic to the Taliban than it had been to mujahedin who fought the Soviets during the 1980s. He says that as support the Taliban is eroded further, it is more difficult for militants to find villages where they can safely take shelter after conducting a guerilla attack.
"The U.S.-led coalition is gradually eroding the sanctuary that was previously enjoyed by the guerilla fighters -- thus, making it far more difficult for them to operate the classic mujahedin hit-and-run attack upon their opponents and then retreat into a vast sanctuary and even cross the border into Pakistan. The Taliban today do not enjoy the popular support throughout the country. And, of course most significantly, the fact that the Pakistani forces are operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border makes it more difficult for the Taliban to operate," Kemp said.
Newly constructed provincial roads and an expanded number of U.S. forward operations bases also have strengthened the abilities of the U.S.-led coalition and reduced areas of potential sanctuary for guerilla fighters in Afghan provinces like Khost, Zabol, Uruzgan, and Kandahar.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at NATO headquarters in Brussels yesterday that he believes such coalition efforts contribute to the waning popular support for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
"I don't think the people in the southern parts of the country consider the Americans as an occupation. They consider them as a force fighting terrorism and helping Afghanistan. It's the security that the friendly forces, the [friendly] foreign forces, provide to the Afghan people for their daily lives," Karzai said.
Some analysts say a government amnesty offer for rank-and-file Taliban fighters also could be undermining support for fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his allies. Several local commanders and scores of their Taliban fighters have accepted the amnesty offer since the beginning of May.