The Taliban had a bad year in 2009, although they managed to play the media well enough to hide a lot of their problems. The biggest defeat for the Taliban was in a continued loss of support by the Afghan people. Opinion surveys have had the percentage of Afghan approving the Taliban going downward for several years, and it's now under ten percent. This is no surprise to anyone living in Afghanistan. The Taliban were always disliked by the majority of Afghans, but now their fellow Pushtuns overwhelmingly hate them as well. This has a lot to do with where the Taliban are operating. That is, mostly in the province of Kandahar, Helmand (where most of the heroin is produced) and Khost. About 80 percent of the violence is taking place in 13 percent of the country, and the Pushtuns in those areas are tired of the Taliban and all their self-righteous violence.
The activity you hear about in the north is usually in those few areas up there occupied by small Pushtun tribes. If the Taliban show up anywhere else (among Uzbek, Turk, Hazara or Tajik people, who dominate the north) they are easily identifiable, and subject to prompt scrutiny by lots of guys with guns. The Taliban not only have to be careful where they go in the north, but in the south as well. An increasing number of southern Pushtun tribes have organized militias to keep the Taliban out of their lands. Often, this is being done with the aid of Afghan or foreign troops. This is what the new American strategy is about, and what all the additional troops are for. Since the Taliban are already restricted to a small area, the new strategy constricts their movement even more.
The Taliban did increase their attacks 64 percent in the first nine months of 2009, but, again, those were mostly restricted to the parts of three provinces where they are already strong. The U.S. and NATO attacks over the Summer hit the drug gangs hard, depriving the Taliban of needed cash. The Pakistani Army has been attacking the Taliban on their side of the border since last August, which has cut off any hope of support from that direction. The Pakistani war on Islamic militants has extended beyond the Taliban, thus hurting other groups that the Taliban could also rely on, if only for sanctuary.
The Taliban are also having a problem with their use of human shields. Foreign troops are not taking the bait like they used to. Instead, the foreign troops wait out the Taliban, knowing that the irregular fighters will get nervous just being surrounded, and will make a break for it. Sometimes they do slip away at night, but often they are caught in the open, where a smart bomb or two can do its job without hurting any civilians. The troops are not crazy about the new tactics, but opinion polls show Afghans feeling they are safer at the end of the year, than at the beginning.
The Taliban issue press releases indicating operations, or control, in many more areas than they are actually in. This sets the pundits to quibbling about what constitutes presence or "control." Since the Taliban rule via terror, not cooperation or acceptance (as the government at least tries to do), their claims of control anywhere outside provinces where they have lots of manpower, are bogus, although often attractive if you are looking for an eyeball grabbing headline.