The Taliban have made a spectacular return to the Afghan battlefield nearly 14 years after U.S. Daisy Cutter bombs and Special Forces forced their hard-line regime to crumble in a matter of weeks.
But the Islamist group's recent capture of a strategic provincial capital in northern Afghanistan as well as their continuous push to grab more territory and incessant attacks across the mountainous country are seen as a bad omen for Afghanistan's future.
The fall of Kunduz to the Taliban on September 28 and their effort this week to mount a similar offensive to overrun Ghazni, a provincial capital in central Afghanistan, were reminiscent of the group's rapid advances in the mid-1990s when the rag-tag student militia conquered large swaths of Afghanistan with extensive Pakistani covert aid.
Fewer Soldiers And No Planes
Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai has covered the Taliban since their emergence. He says that after the departure of most NATO troops from Afghanistan late last year the Taliban are more confident because they face fewer air strikes from the country's nearly nonexistent air force.
"The Taliban now feel confident that they can wage an extensive ground war aiming at capturing territory, close off key transport arteries, and even overrun cities such as Kunduz," he said.
According to the United Nations, the threat level in half of the country's nearly 400 districts is either high or extreme. The Long War Journal estimates the Taliban now control 27 districts while another 36 are contested, meaning they have changed hands between the government forces and insurgents in recent years.
At the peak of NATO deployment in Afghanistan, nearly 150,000 international troops served in most of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. They came from some of the world's most advanced militaries and had established tenuous control over Afghan territory. Their superiority over the airspace was undisputed. Now only 10,000 international troops remain in Afghanistan in a supporting role.
The international community, Washington in particular, pays for the nearly 350,000 Afghan security forces. Former Afghan lawmaker Kabir Ranjbar says that while much has been spent on training and arming them, they still lack key capacities.
"They don't have air support. In fact, we don't have an air force," he said. "We don't have armored columns and tanks. We are really lacking in heavy armaments."
Some Afghan military experts, however, are keen to examine the Taliban's motivations for ramping up violence. Attiqullah Amarkhel, a former Afghan Army general, says the rise in the violence is part of an effort by new Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansur to show his strength.
"The new Taliban leader wants to show his followers, the Afghan people, government, and the international community that he is a much stronger figure than his predecessor," Amarkhel said. "This is why the Taliban are showing their strength by ramping up attacks and presence across the nation, which is backed with a heightened recruitment drive."
After running the movement as a de facto leader for years, Mansur formally assumed the Taliban leadership after the 2013 death of the movement's founding leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was made public in July. The leadership transition, however, exposed internal squabbling and for the first time in the secretive organization's three-decade history, competing leaders and factions aired their dirty laundry in public.
To prevent an all-out civil war among the insurgents, Mansur swiftly moved to assert his authority. He accommodated many opponents in leadership positions and distanced himself from peace talks with Kabul. This, observers say, was aimed at preserving unity among the Taliban ranks and bridge differences among the Pakistan-based leaders and powerful military commanders across Afghanistan.
Some observers, however, are convinced the divisions and vulnerabilities of Afghanistan's national unity government have strengthened insurgents.
Lawmaker Abdul Rahim Ayubi says that during the Taliban assault of Ghazni, a key provincial capital between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, it was difficult to even contact the right person in the government to report its vulnerability and civilian suffering during the attack.
"This government lacks confidence, and the national unity government is plagued by differences and divisions," he said. "All this makes it very difficult to identify officials who feel they are responsible for answering people's woes."
Most Afghans are convinced the Taliban can't sustain their violent campaign without Pakistani sanctuaries and covert support. The New York Times recently reported that Mansur lives in an affluent neighborhood of Pakistan's southwestern Quetta city and his alliance with the country's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence has enabled him to quash internal dissent and oversee a dramatic expansion of the Taliban insurgency.
The Taliban regime merely retreated into Pakistan in 2001. During the past 14 years, their leadership and fighters have been largely immune to NATO operations in Afghanistan. In addition, Kabul's efforts to built cooperative relations with Islamabad failed because of the latter's reluctance to move against Afghan Taliban sanctuaries.
Western experts agree that resurrections with foreign support and safe havens are very difficult to defeat. "We cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan without recognizing that the insurgency against that government is shaped, aided, and armed from across the border by one of the world's most powerful armies," journalist Fareed Zakaria wrote in a recent opinion piece.
Kabul seems to have realized the futility of pushing Islamabad to deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. This week, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah rejected a recent Pakistani offer to restart negotiations with the Taliban with an intriguing demand.
"This is good talk, but in reality we expect that [Pakistan] will cut off its [covert] aid to the Taliban," he told the Afghan cabinet on October 12. "If they don't receive outside help they will not be able to to run grand-scale [military] operations."