Despite evolving quite a lot since late 2001, the Taliban have only made themselves more unpopular in Afghanistan. Despite that, they have become more powerful. They have done this by providing security for drug gangs, and promising the drug lords that, once the Taliban control the country again, heroin and opium production would enjoy the same privileges that existed when the Taliban last ran the nation in the late 1990s (pay a tax and restrict distribution within the country). The drug gangs provided cash, which enabled the Taliban to offer higher pay to gunmen, than the army and police, plus more looting and other traditional warrior opportunities.
The evolved Taliban are also trying to control the more fanatical factions that oppose secular education in general, particularly for girls. These fanatics also oppose vaccinations and health clinics. The evolved leadership backs health care, especially if foreigners are paying for it. The fanatics still have their way when it comes to opposing movies, music and videos. Keeping women covered up and out of the workplace is still a hot topic within the Taliban. It's these divisions that make the government optimistic about convincing more pro-Taliban tribal leaders to side with the government. While the government is corrupt, so are a growing number of Taliban leaders. All that drug money has a corrosive effect on even the most pious Taliban.
Most Western media are beginning to catch on to these new developments. Gone are the news stories about Afghanistan becoming America's new "Vietnam." This angle always grossly misinterpreted what went on in Vietnam (a civil war between equal populations, each backed by superpower patrons).
Afghanistan is a tribal confederation, loosely defined (for the last few centuries) as a nation, where a religious movement (the Taliban) sponsored by few tribes in the south (originally organized and subsidized by Pakistan), are trying are trying to regain the power they had in the 1990s. The Taliban never conquered the entire country back then, and in late 2001 (aided by al Qaeda, local drug lords and Pakistan) were still battling non-Pushtun tribes in the north. Actually, their key combat units were foreigners (the al Qaeda brigade) and Pakistani volunteers. That's how unpopular the Taliban had become. Ever since they were chased out in November, 2001, they have been trying to create a "popular movement" that would put them back in power. With its al Qaeda and Pakistani support greatly diminished, the drug gangs have taken up the slack. So the main battle now is between drug gang sponsored militias (who have the backing of about 10 percent of the population) and the rest of the country (aided by over 100,000 foreign troops). The Taliban "coalition from hell" is trying to terrorize their way back into power. Historically, this approach rarely works, especially given the long list of opponents the Taliban face this time around. The Taliban has no national constituency and most Afghans know exactly what they are, and hate them. The drug gangs are also widely hated, and must now restrict their operations to a small area of the south, concentrated in Helmand province. So while you're reading the news, don't lose sight of the reality. Recent opinion polls in Afghanistan show 90 percent of the population is hostile to the Taliban.
The Taliban have tried to make their war one of "Pushtun Liberation" rather than "establishing a religious dictatorship." The Taliban have got some traction with this. While the Pushtun tribes are only 40 percent of the population, many of them insist that they are actually the majority (51-60 percent), and should run the nation. In the past century or so, it has been customary for Pushtun tribal leaders to dominate the central government (the king was almost always a Pushtun). But the Pushtuns were often greedy, leaving the majority tribes with hardly any power in the central government. Since the Taliban defeat in 2001, this has been reversed, with the non-Pushtun tribes now having most government posts (although the president, and many key officials, are still Pushtun). Many Pushtuns resent the additional clout the majority tribes have, and want a return to the days of Pushtun domination. The majority does not agree. In the past, the Pushtun tribes got their way because of the implicit threat of support from the Pushtuns in Pakistan. Some two-thirds of the Pushtuns in the region live in Pakistan, but those Pushtuns are, for the first time in their history, being invaded by the Pakistani army, and are asking for help from the Afghan Pushtuns. So it's not a good time to be a pushy Pushtun in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the fighting continues in the south, as U.S. and NATO forces go after drug gang facilities. The drug lords, and their Taliban foot soldiers, are fighting hard to keep the foreign (and Afghan) troops out. Since much of the fighting is in Helmand province, and nearby Kandahar (always the most pro-Taliban city), the locals have been largely uncooperative. That's because half the heroin production in Afghanistan (which produces over 80 percent of the global supply) is from Helmand. This is also where many of the drug lords themselves are headquartered, and where they spread their wealth around. This is their homeland, and they have much to lose if they are forced to abandon it. But that's exactly what the drug gangs are working on. They cannot defeat the foreign troops in combat, and the terrorist and roadside bomb attacks do not kill enough troops to disable the foreign combat units. Actually, casualty rates for foreign troops are a fraction (less than 30 percent) of previous wars (like Vietnam). The drug gangs can only hope that the foreign media will play up the foreign troop losses enough so that politicians will be forced to withdraw most of the foreign troops. Otherwise, the drug gangs face the same fate (elimination) as their predecessors in Pakistan and Burma. The heroin trade will then pop up somewhere else, but it won't be in Afghanistan. That's because most Afghans have rejected it. Only a minority of the Pushtuns in the south have embraced heroin, and now that is backfiring.
By adopting roadside bomb tactics (some 8,000 were placed last year) and suicide bombing (using brainwashed teenagers from religious schools), the Taliban have killed a lot of people, but most of them have been Afghan civilians (over 1,400 last year, up 50 percent from the previous year). The Taliban always promised clean government, but demonstrated how harsh, and ultimately corrupt that became, back in the 1990s. Nothing has changed with the new generation of Taliban leaders. These guys send out memos about how important it is for their followers to protect civilians and be sensitive to local customs. But in a country with 80 percent illiteracy, it should come as no surprise that most of their gunmen can't even read these directives, and have no inclination to follow them. For thousands of years, young Afghan tribesmen, turned loose with weapons, were interested in having their way, and getting rich. The Taliban have not been able to change that. Last year, 70 percent of the civilians killed in combat, were slain by the Taliban. Over a thousand were killed by suicide bombers.