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New guns, new drive for Taliban

Rebel leader says they can now shoot down US aircraft.

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An internal debate within the Taliban - whether to launch increasingly aggressive attacks against the US-led coalition or to allow the insurgency to bleed the Afghan government over time - has been settled this year, according to a rebel commander and Afghan security officials.

In the most violent year of their insurgency to date, the Taliban have gone on the offensive, launching more pitched battles in an effort to persuade the international community and Afghans that this remains very much a nation at war, says Mullah Gul Mohammad, a front-line commander for Jaish-e Muslimeen, a recently reconciled Taliban splinter group.

"For the past many days we [the Taliban and the Jaish] have been fighting together against our common enemies," says Mullah Mohammad, who says he traveled from Afghanistan to Chaman, Pakistan, for an interview. The insurgents are flush with new weapons - including surface-to-air missiles - and cash, he says, and are pausing only to see if the US military decides to draw down forces following the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. "If they stay, we would launch our attacks anew."

In the four years since the fall of the Taliban government, there have been many moments when it appeared that the Taliban insurgency had breathed its last breath. But this year was different. The Taliban have launched a series of attacks that has raised this year's death toll - 1,200 civilians and military personnel so far - to a wartime high. Their attacks show increasing sophistication, US and Afghan officials say, and a UN report now warns that the Taliban may be receiving tactical training from jihadists returning from Iraq.

With an apparently revitalized Taliban insurgency, the American military and its NATO allies must now decide whether their strategy needs retooling, and American diplomats could have increasing difficulty convincing NATO allies to take over leadership of the Afghan counterinsurgency campaign. It could be a hard sell, indeed. Even US military commanders say it is too soon to count the Taliban out.

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