They're Back: A New, Vicious Taliban Take Shape in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan June 27, 2006 — -- Coalition forces battling the Taliban across southern Afghanistan aren't fighting the same bearded extremists they toppled in October 2001.

It's as if the sequel to a horror film is being replayed across southern Afghanistan this summer.

Call it "Taliban II." They're back, reloaded, and more ruthless than ever.

They're Back

Suicide attacks and roadside bombs -- once unheard of in this country -- are now almost a daily occurrence.

The Taliban seem unconcerned if they hit civilian or military targets. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber in northern Kunduz killed two and injured eight. A suicide attack near the Bagram Airbase on Monday wounded two children.

Soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition are currently battling the Taliban across four southern provinces: Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan.

More than 1,100 -- most of them Taliban -- have died in the vicious fighting.

Reports vary but all involve violence such as Taliban soldiers gouging the eyes out of prisoners they capture in the South or burning down schools that offer co-ed classes.

Last week ABC News received a grisly video release. It pictured the Taliban's ruthless one-legged commander Mullah Dadullah beheading alleged spies for America.

Ahmed Rashid, author of the "Taliban," said the movement had gone through "many morphings," and argued that so-called moderates had defected or been purged by the current leadership now loyal to Osama bin Laden.

"They are particularly brutal," Rashid said, "and they are doing al Qaeda's bidding."

"Taliban II": No Stability, No Security

This is a marked change from the past. Then, despite their bizarre edicts that forced women to wear burqas, and banned kite-flying and beard-trimming, at least they brought a measure of stability to this long-troubled country.

"In the early days of the Taliban, they brought security, and they got credit for that," said Mirajuddhin Pathan, the governor of Khost province. "Now they have nothing to offer, and the people hate them."

The bedraggled force so easily toppled in 2001 has resurged with new tactics and surprising stamina.

Taliban units now attack in larger numbers -- sometimes with as many as 400 men, according to military experts and soldiers who have fought them.

They stand their ground longer, rather than engaging in the hit-and-run attacks that characterized the insurgency in recent years.

"The tactics of the Pakistan Taliban are developing similarities to the violence orchestrated in Iraq by insurgents and al Qaeda linked Sunni terrorists," said terrorism analyst MJ Gohel. "Afghanistan is becoming another killing field for the global jihad movement."

Many here in Afghanistan blame neighboring Pakistan for providing the Taliban sanctuary -- and even material support.

A U.S. military document obtained by ABC News lists the top tier of the new Taliban leadership, indicating that all of them operate from the western Pakistani city of Quetta.

The U.S. military declined to discuss specifics of the document and said that the story was based on old information.

Among the men on the U.S. hit list: Mullah Berader, the man many believed would succeed the elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar, were he captured or killed; and, there's Mullah Obaidullah, the man the U.S. military intelligence believes is running the guns and ammunition to the troops fighting inside Afghanistan.

Self-Funding Army, Thanks to Opium

Before the Taliban were made up of mostly ethnic Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan. Now, experts say, fighting units are made up of a mix of Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks.

"They are not Afghan. They're not Pakistani," according to a senior Afghan official. "They are transnational terrorists, and they are serious radicals."

Pakistan hotly denies supporting the Taliban, pointing out that it has seen heavy losses. Pakistan has nearly 80,000 troops along the Afghan border.

Experts agree that it may be possible that the Taliban are going it alone thanks to drug money.

It's impossible to know how much of Afghanistan's $3 billion opium trade ends up in terrorist coffers, but Helmand province -- a place where the Taliban have the deepest ties to the drug trade -- will produce about $1 billion of opium this year alone.

This is why the fighting going on in Afghanistan currently is so crucially important to the future stability of this region -- and to the world itself.

If this conflict continues to fester, Afghan heroin may well fund the next terrorist attacks.