A U.S. soldier makes his way during a sandstorm in the Afghan province of… (Peter Parks, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Zhari district, Afghanistan — It was a classic photo opportunity: the governor of Kandahar province astride a lumbering farm tractor, plowing under the first green shoots of opium poppies poking their way through the soil. The engine clattered; the cameras clicked away. "Enough?" the governor asked, and clambered down.
Just outside the photo frames, truckloads of Afghan police and a convoy of U.S. armored vehicles stood guard over this drug-eradication exercise a half-hour west of Kandahar, the main city of southern Afghanistan. Asked whether the governor and his entourage could have visited this spot without U.S. firepower at the ready, an Afghan police commander laughed heartily.
"Sure, we could come here," he said. "But we might not come back!"
Zhari district, where Mullah Mohammed Omar founded the Taliban movement in the 1990s, could prove a key testing ground as insurgents launch an expected spring offensive in coming weeks. In September, a U.S.-led military operation to secure strategic districts on Kandahar city's outskirts drove the Taliban from long-held bases here.
That campaign was part of an ambitious Western bid to seize the battlefield initiative across Afghanistan's south, and to begin laying the groundwork for a transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan police and soldiers over the next three years.
Senior U.S. officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who visited bases in the south this month, insist that the insurgents will find it difficult to regain a foothold in areas "cleared" in last year's fighting.
"We think that what they're returning to is a significantly different environment than what they left last year," said Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the NATO force's deputy commander.
But longtime observers of the Taliban point out that the movement does not necessarily need to hold territory to make its influence strongly felt. Even in small numbers, its fighters can use hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, tying down large numbers of coalition troops. And even through the winter months, as combat trailed off, the insurgents were able to employ improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, to bloody the far more powerful NATO force. Civilians, too, are dying at an unprecedented rate.
Taliban fighters "are not going to charge back in here like the cavalry in your Old West movies," said an official in Kandahar, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of insurgent death threats against him. "They can't. But they don't have to. They can come in quietly."
That pattern can already be seen in Zhari. Villagers said the insurgents melted away for much of the winter, as they customarily do — with some disappearing even before the U.S. offensive last fall. But as the weather has warmed, they say, fighters have been stealthily reestablishing themselves, slipping into the district in ragged, inconspicuous bands of three or four, uncovering buried weapons caches, availing themselves of eyes and ears in every hamlet.
Western officials have touted the success of raids, mainly carried out by special operations forces, that they say have killed or captured nearly 3,000 Taliban suspects over the last three months, including many in the movement's mid-level command tier. Senior commanders have described these raids as a devastating blow to the insurgents' fighting ability.
But the Taliban movement is known to have an enormous recruiting pool in the Islamic seminaries of Pakistan, whose tribal borderlands offer a plethora of havens where foot soldiers can be trained and armed before being sent into battle in Afghanistan.
The loss of experienced commanders is undoubtedly being felt as the insurgents seek to regroup, according to several people familiar with the Taliban field structure. But replacement leaders at the squad level are consistently described as younger, more ruthless and more ideologically driven, which could heighten the level of violence.
Moreover, the movement has historically been able to absorb large numerical losses. In Zhari, for example, an offensive by Canadian forces in 2006 was thought to have killed more than 1,000 insurgents. But within 18 months, Taliban fighters had once again ensconced themselves in the district.
A primary goal of the offensive in Kandahar's outlying areas was to make the city safer, enabling better governance to take hold. But despite a drop-off in suicide bombings and other large-scale attacks, the sinister phenomenon of Taliban targeted killings expanded in the province last year.
Hit teams, often a pair of assailants on a motorbike, routinely target tribal elders, elected officials and local dignitaries. And attacks on government and security installations in the city have not halted altogether.