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A Taliban charm offensive?

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The New York Times' Alissa Rubin reports that some rural Afghans are seeing an improvement in the behaviour of Taliban insurgents. She also twice notes the disdain which Afghans exhibit for NATO troops, thus echoing Al Jazeera's reporter last week who said that locals "don't hide their hatred" of the foreign soldiers.

Taliban Make Over Their Image to Win Allies
By Alissa J. Rubin

KABUL, Jan 21 (NYT) - The Taliban have embarked on a sophisticated information war, using modern media tools as well as some old-fashioned ones, to soften their image and win favor with local Afghans...

Now, as the Taliban deepen their presence in more of Afghanistan, they are in greater need of popular support and are recasting themselves increasingly as a local liberation movement, independent of Al Qaeda, capitalizing on the mounting frustration of Afghans with their own government and the presence of foreign troops. The effect has been to make them a more potent insurgency, some NATO officials said.

Afghan villagers and some NATO officials added that [the Taliban code of conduct issued last year] had begun to change the way some midlevel Taliban commanders and their followers behave on the ground. A couple of the most brutal commanders have even been removed by Mullah Omar...

But the most important factor in their growing reach is the ineffectiveness of the central government and Afghans’ resentment of foreign troops.

Military intelligence analysts now estimate that there are 25,000 to 30,000 committed Taliban fighters and perhaps as many as 500,000 others who would fight either for pay or if they felt attacked by the Western coalition...

Interviews with tribal elders in areas where the Taliban are active suggest a complex picture. Several interviewed in rural Kandahar Province praised the Taliban’s new, less threatening approach, but said that did not translate into enthusiasm for the Taliban. At the same time, there is not much liking for either the Afghan government or NATO troops.

“There is a tremendous change in the Taliban’s behavior,” said Haji-Khan Muhammad Khan, a tribal elder from Shawalikot, a rural district of Kandahar Province

“They don’t behead people or detain those they suspect of spying without an investigation. But sometimes they still make mistakes, people still fear them, but now generally they behave well with people. They had to change because the leadership of the Taliban did not want to lose the support of the grass roots.” (link)

Rubin's figure of a half million almost-insurgents is an estimate I have not seen before. That puts a number value on the potential hornet's nest which the American-led war could be stepping into with their plans to get close to the population and make Afghans like the occupation.

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