U.S. and NATO combat tactics continue to prevent the Taliban from achieving any military success, and establishing any control over territory. However, the Taliban are still able to wield considerable influence over much of southern Afghanistan by using terror against the locals. This generates lots of cash via extortion (including foreign aid money). That, plus payments from drug gangs (for helping protect drug production and movement out of the country) and Islamic charities (that secretly support radical Islamic causes), keeps things going. While the Taliban are, on the surface, about imposing a conservative Islamic lifestyle on Afghanistan (and, eventually, the world), they are basically an effort by traditionalists to maintain ancient customs and practices. Not surprisingly, most Afghans don't back that vision of their future. But many young men will join the fight, any fight, for the right price. It's that sense of adventure, and willingness to risk all for low pay, that keeps the Taliban going. Then there is the appeal of being bad boys, and forcing others to do your bidding. This has long brought armed Afghans out of their villages, organized in groups led by men who knew how to organize journeys to distant places, where everyone could loot and generally take advantage of "foreigners" (which in Afghanistan, can mean anyone not from your clan.)
The money and ability to terrorize brings with it some control of local police and media. The drug gangs help with this, as they prefer to use cash, instead of violence, to buy cooperation from the cops and locals in general (government officials and the media). The central government is just another bunch of foreigners trying to impose their will on the locals. While the government officials speak the local language, unless they come bearing gifts (and not looking to loot), they get a hostile reception. While most Afghans recognize the concept of "Afghanistan", they are more concerned with their personal situation and local conditions. Being the poorest nation in Asia, most Afghans are focused on survival. Religion is important, especially since Islam promises a much better afterlife for those who play by the rules. The Taliban take that concept to another level, demanding that followers willingly exit this life way ahead of schedule (even for a country where the average life span is 40 something.) The Taliban is so hostile to television and radio (except when they control the content) because most of their foot soldiers are from the large, illiterate population of country lads with little knowledge of the outside world. All these guys know is the Afghan legends of raids, and grand military expeditions to the eastern plains (Pakistan, the Indus valley and beyond) and incredible riches. These kids are living in another century, and we're talking way before the 20th here. But these kids also have modern weapons, and an eagerness to use them. But once they lose their ignorance, they begin to question their self-destructive ways, and become hostile to what the Taliban is all about.
While the Taliban can object to TV and video (because of the un-Islamic entertainment programming, along with the troublesome news about the outside world), they cannot use the same objection about schools (although they do anyway). Despite Taliban attacks on schools, teachers and students (especially girls), enrollment continues to climb. The Taliban attacks on schools has been one of their most unpopular moves. But the Taliban have a much harder time recruiting literate men. More schools, mean less manpower for the Taliban.
Another disastrous Taliban strategy has been attempts to cut the U.S./NATO supply line from Pakistan (where over 50,000 freight containers are trucked in each year for the troops.) Part of this campaign is a dispute over who will get what amount of bribe money paid to border tribes to "protect" the truck traffic. Unfortunately for both countries, the attacks on the trucks also disrupts the $2 billion (annual) trade (all carried by truck, mainly via the Khyber Pass) between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This brings big, and heavily armed, pressure on the Taliban to back off and go away.
The Taliban use of terror is nothing new in Afghanistan. For thousands of years, warlords and religious rebels have used it to take, and build, power at the grass roots level. Afghans are believers in the old adage, "it is better to be feared than loved." But what the Taliban have to contend with these days is somewhat unique. The American and NATO forces have powerful information gathering capabilities. The UAVs, electronic eavesdropping, spreading use of cell phones and U.S. Special Forces establishing informant networks, makes Taliban leaders much more vulnerable. Every month, several senior Taliban leaders get located and killed, along with their bodyguards (who sometimes number in the dozens). Documents and electronic data is then recovered from the bodies, and the infidel intelligence monster goes leaping after its next victim.
The killing of Taliban leaders (and the hassles of lower ranking officials moving up to replace them) and the constant searches for large groups of Taliban, has disrupted efforts to interfere with voter registration. The Taliban believes democracy is un-Islamic, but has been unable to muster the armed manpower to disrupt preparations for the first national elections since 2005. The voter registration process is going more smoothly, despite Taliban propaganda that they could prevent it from happening in the south. In some areas, where the Taliban has lots of hired guns, Afghan police, and foreign troops in the area, were surprised at the lack of Taliban violence against the registration. Apparently the Taliban believed they would lose too many men if they tried to disrupt the registration.
There have been fewer suicide and roadside bombs lately, thanks to a U.S. and NATO effort to track down the bomb makers. This manifested itself in grim fashion recently in Helmand province, where a suicide bomber was hugging his buddies and handlers goodbye. His bomb vest suddenly went off, killing the bomber and the five members of his team. The bomb had been improperly made, and had gone off prematurely. This has happened more often of late, and is a very visible result of the more experienced bomb makers getting taken out of play.
The U.S. and NATO have agreed on a new strategy, which puts more emphasis on destroying the drug gangs and improving the reliability and effectiveness of the police and army. This includes reducing the corruption, which is particularly crippling among the rural police. There is also talk of setting deadlines for certain objectives to be achieved. More experienced Afghan hands are pointing to the British colonial experience in this region, over a century ago; "you can't hustle the east." But you can try, and apparently that's what Afghanistan is in for.
One of the three additional U.S. brigades being sent to Afghanistan, will be broken up into over 200 10-14 man advisory teams, and used to improve leadership and technical skills of Afghan army and police units.
The U.S. is offering $11 million in rewards for the three most senior Taliban leaders (Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Tehrik-e-Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani terrorist network founded by his father, Jalaladin Haqqani, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, an Islamic scholar.)
Meanwhile, many Europeans oppose their military involvement in Afghanistan. These politicians, and many of their supporters, believe that abandoning Afghanistan would not be a disaster because, even if the area went back to being a terrorist base, improved European counter-terror efforts will keep the killers out.
Down south in Kunduz province, U.S. troops went to arrest some known terrorists. At the compound, one bad guy was killed, another was arrested, and the other armed men in the compound were told to come out. They did, but with guns blazing, and the four of them were killed. The problem was, this was the home of a local politicians, and all the dead were on his payroll. The local police were not involved in the raid, because it was known that the local cops were bought and paid to work for local gangs. While the provincial police who accompanied the U.S. troops corroborated the U.S. description of events, the local cops, who were not on the scene, insisted that it was a massacre of innocent Afghan civilians.