Paktia Province, one of 34 in Afghanistan, is located in the eastern part of the country, up against the Pakistani border. With about 350,000 people spread across about 19,500 square kilometers, it's relatively small as Afghan provinces go. In many ways what is happening in Paktia is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan. The province has about a dozen districts (similar to American counties), and is dominated by several tribes, who usually don't get along very well. In Paktia, the principal tribes are the Totakhel and the Mangal, both members of the larger Pushtun community. The Mangal are the majority in about four districts and the largest single group in about four more. They've long been at odds with the Totakhel, not only over political influence, but also over control of smuggling and illegal activity in the region.
This is a staunchly traditionalist Moslem region. The tribes supported the 1980s war against the Soviet Union, and cooperated with the Taliban when it came to power. But in November of 2001, the tribes cooperated with each other in inviting the Taliban to leave, which took place more or less peacefully, as tribal leaders - primarily veterans of the anti-Soviet movement - formed their own "shura" or provincial council.
There is a Taliban presence in the province, and there have been attacks on U.S., Coalition, and Afghan military personnel. But their effectiveness is not means as great as they often claim. For example, a recent pro-Taliban news outlet in Central Asia reported 70 Americans killed in a series of Christmas eve attacks. This was more than ten times the actual number of casualties, but the Taliban has to exaggerate, otherwise it becomes obvious how impotent they are.
But by working through tribal leaders, including former Taliban who had earlier agreed to support the new Afghan government, a great deal of success has been gained in convincing Taliban supporters to lay down their arms. During May and June of 2005 along about 250 Taliban agreed to leave the movement. In keeping with historic "best practices" in counter-insurgency operations, many of these people were shortly given responsible assignments, including jobs with the Coalition Provincial Reconstruct Team (PRT) that oversees civic and infrastructure restoration in the province, building schools, clinics, and roads, while promoting democratic activities such as town meetings.
These defectors play several important roles in helping further suppress Taliban activity in the province. They are often important sources of information on weapons caches, safe houses, and Taliban agents. In addition, the visibility of the assignments which they are given encourages other Taliban to defect.
While the Taliban remains a threat in Paktia, it is also steadily losing supporters to the Afghan government; a recent mass defection brought about 25 former Taliban over to the new government. In much the same fashion, across Afghanistan over the past few months several hundred other Taliban fighters, and a number of prominent leaders, have become reconciled with the government. The response by the Taliban has been an attempt to ratchet up the violence, with increased targeting of civilians and a greater use of suicide bombings.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears to believe this is a desperate throw on the part of the surviving Taliban. On January 8th, in the context of a speech in which he observed that hundreds of former Taliban had become reconciled with the government and were helping to rebuild Afghanistan, Karzai proposed that Taliban leader Mullah Omar "get in touch with us," indicating that the government would like to ''see what he has to say, of course." Karzai added, however, ''But I don't think he will come. He has so much on his hands against Afghanistan." Then, observing that "We don't even know as to where he is hiding," Karzai added, ''I am sure we will find them one day."