Kabul, Afghanistan The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan predicted Saturday that the Taliban militia would collapse as a viable fighting force over the next several months as rank-and-file members accept a reconciliation offer from the Afghan government.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno warned, however, that remaining Taliban extremists financed and trained by al-Qaida allies might attempt to compensate by staging a high-profile attack in Afghanistan within the next six to nine months.
"As these terrorists' capabilities grow more and more limited, the hard-core fanatics will grow more and more desperate to try and do something to change the course of events in Afghanistan," Barno said at a news conference in Kabul, the capital. "I expect they will be looking ... to garner media publicity and to try and score some type of propaganda victory."
Barno said he did not have specific intelligence as to where the Taliban might strike.
Earlier Saturday, Maulvi Abdul Kabir, who is considered second in the Taliban hierarchy, said in an audio tape released to the Reuters news agency that militia leaders were planning to shift from guerrilla warfare to terrorist-style attacks.
Since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan has largely been spared the sort of insurgent attacks common in Iraq that have resulted in high death tolls. The Taliban had threatened to disrupt Afghanistan's first direct presidential election last October, but voting proceeded relatively peacefully.
Neither Barno nor Afghan officials would disclose how many Taliban members have accepted President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation offer, which seeks to bring in members hiding in Afghanistan or in other countries. Under the arrangement, Taliban members must recognize the legitimacy of the elected government in exchange for assurances that they will not face arrest by foreign or Afghan forces.
Human rights groups and some Afghans say they fear the offer will enable many former Taliban members to escape justice for past wrongdoing.
Barno said he thought that large numbers of the Taliban force, which once numbered in the thousands, eventually would accept the offer.