The Taliban are planning a major winter offensive combining their diverse factions in a push on the Afghan capital, Kabul, intelligence analysts and sources among the militia have revealed.
The thrust will involve a concerted attempt to take control of surrounding provinces, a bid to cut the key commercial highway linking the capital with the eastern city of Jalalabad, and operations designed to tie down British and other NATO troops in the south.
Last week NATO, with a force of 40,000 in the country, said it had killed 48 more Taliban in areas thought to have been "cleared."
"They have major attacks planned all the way through to the spring and are quite happy for their enemy to know it," a source close to the militia said. "There will be no winter pause."
The Taliban's fugitive leader, Mullah Omar, on Saturday rejected overtures for peace talks from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and said it intended to try him in an Islamic court for the "massacre" of Afghan civilians.
Since their resurgence earlier this year the Taliban have made steady progress towards Kabul from their heartland in the south-east around Kandahar, establishing a presence in Ghazni Province an hour's drive from the suburbs.
They do not expect to capture the capital but aim to continue destabilizing the increasingly fragile Karzai government and influence Western public opinion to force a withdrawal of troops.
"The aim is clear," the source. said, "Force the international representatives of the crusader Zionist alliance out, and finish with their puppet government."
A winter offensive breaks with tradition.
"Usually all Afghans do in the winter is try and stay warm," said a Western military intelligence specialist in Kabul. "The coming months are likely to see intense fighting, suicide bombings and unmanned roadside bombs. That is a measure of how much the Taliban have changed."
The new Taliban, a rough alliance of Islamist zealots, teenagers seeking adventure, disgruntled villagers led by tribal elders alienated from the government, drug dealers and smugglers -- is no longer the parochial, traditional militia that seized Kabul almost exactly 10 years ago and was ousted by the US-led coalition in 2001.
Tactics, ideology, equipment and organization have all moved on. The use of suicide bombings, roadside bombs and targeted assassinations of those cooperating with Western forces are methods copied from Iraqi insurgents.
"They can't engage in big groups so ... they've moved on to these targeted assassinations," said Naimatullah Khan, deputy chief of the local council in southern Kandahar Province, who has seen several colleagues killed.
More than 70 suicide bombings, four times as many as last year, have together killed scores of civilians.
In 2001 the tactic was almost unknown among Afghans. French intelligence sources say militants are heading to Afghanistan rather than Iraq.
The Taliban are now exploiting modern militant propaganda such as recruitment videos and mass-produced DVDs and CDs.
This has been copied from international terrorist operators such as Osama bin Laden, thought to be hiding either in the eastern zones along the Afghan border with Pakistan or in the heavily wooded northern province of Kunar where there is continued skirmishing between US troops and militants.
In the south, the Taliban's strategy has been influenced by the doctrine of Pakistani spymasters who ran the insurgent war against the Russians in the 1980s.