LONDON - There is hardly anything conventional about the soldiers, weapons and tactics of the Taliban. In this supersonic age, they move largely on foot; they have fighter-bombers, but most of them don't work; their favorite strategy combines unflinching repression with fierce moral certitude.
On paper, at least, it doesn't seem that the Taliban, who rule Afghanistan, are a match for the combined might of the U.S. military and British forces. Those modern and mighty armies are gathering in the region like so many dark, threatening clouds, determined to extract Saudi exile Osama bin Laden from his hiding place and crush his al-Qaida organization.
Even though circumstances would dictate that the Taliban are likely to be smashed by any large-scale western onslaught of air bombardment and ground operations, that doesn't mean they can't put up a fight and inflict damage.
"The best guerrilla fighters in the world are Afghans," says Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. "They can survive on very little."
They have old Soviet tanks and modern pickup trucks manned by lightly armed gunners. They boast an air force that might have three or four operational Soviet MiG jets out of a total of 20 fighter-bombers. They have 10 to 12 helicopters. But they are very adept at melding into the mountains and caves of a craggy country, analysts say.
Just how many Taliban soldiers there are is something of a mystery. Perhaps there are 45,000, but the best estimates range from 30,000 to 50,000, including up to 9,000 Pakistani, Uzbek, Tajik and Arab fighters, spread over a Texas-size country.
"The vast bulk of the Taliban army travels around on foot or in pickup trucks," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "The Toyota Land Cruiser is their vehicle of choice. The problem will be finding these targets and then neutralizing them."
Afghanistan's history is filled with foreign invaders sustaining egregious losses and leaving in humiliation, including the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
With such a historic backdrop, coupled with the forbidding terrain and looming onset of winter, analysts say, the Taliban's ability to conduct a guerrilla campaign should not be underestimated.
The Taliban, or students, rose to power in the mid-1990s. They used military muscle, religious ideology, and in some cases, cash, to divide and conquer their foes in a quick sweep across the country. Under their reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, they ran the Soviet-backed Northern Alliance out of the capital, Kabul, to a pocket of land in the northeast comprising about 10 percent of the country.
Their success early on is attributed to their willingness to fight greed, corruption and disorder. Reportedly, Omar was driven to action when he heard of the rape of two young girls, and mobilized a group of religious students to avenge the crime. After 20 years of bloodshed, the local populace believed in the Taliban's rectitude, welcoming and assisting them. Military assistance provided by bin Laden and cooperation with the Pakistani intelligence service reputedly aided the Taliban.
"They took over Kabul because the Northern Alliance was in such disarray and degenerated to the stage where it was no longer an effective fighting force," Heyman says. "The Northern Alliance fought among themselves, and the Taliban walked in."
Their fierce and unforgiving nature quickly became apparent. When they took Kabul, the Taliban not only decided to hang the prime minister but also reportedly set televisions swinging from the trees.
Once victorious, they protected what they had, especially against the Northern Alliance.
During their prolonged civil war, the Taliban and Northern Alliance trade volleys with rocket launchers and artillery barrages and exchange slivers of land. Fighting usually ceases during the heavy snows of winter.
After years of often brutal fighting, the 20,000 Taliban troops in the northeast of Afghanistan are battle-hardened, even if they wear sandals instead of combat boots.
"The Taliban forces and the forces of the Northern Alliance are approximately equal as far as their military experience and technical equipment are concerned," says Andrei I. Nikolayev, chairman of the Russian Duma's Defense Committee.
Nikolayev says he expects the Taliban to put that military experience to use against an American attack and that they will "put up considerable resistance."
But, Nikolayev says, they will be no match for American technological superiority.
Nikolayev was formerly head of Russia's border guards, who have seen considerable action fighting Taliban-backed rebels in Tajikistan. The Taliban, he says, are equipped mainly with Soviet weapons - small arms, tanks and anti-aircraft guns.
But most dangerous for the Americans, he says, will be leftover Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which the United States sent to Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet Union and which proved highly effective. Nikolayev noted that news agencies have reported that 80 Stingers are still in the hands of the Taliban, though only about 20 are thought to be operational.
As for the Northern Alliance forces, he says, though they will be getting new weapons from Russia, they won't have anyone who knows how to use them, having not kept up with the latest technology.
By comparison, the Taliban's arsenal is hardly state of the art.
"They've got main battle tanks and armored fighting vehicles," Heyman says. "They've got 400 to 500 T-55 tanks, of which about 100 are operational. They've got some MiG-23s, probably no more than three or four operational. They have some air defenses, self-propelled anti-aircraft systems, probably 30 to 50, but nothing along the lines of what the Yugoslavs had in Kosovo. We think they have as many as a dozen helicopters.
"Their main Achilles' heel is their fuel and ammo stocks and their ability to get those stocks around," he adds.
But the Taliban's strength doesn't lie in equipment - it is based on a willingness to fight a prolonged campaign, luring their foes to the mountains.
"There will be a hard-core resistance from Kabul, in the northeast and in the south who will remain loyal to Mullah Omar," Rashid says. "It will be like the Soviet period all over again. It will be like guerrilla war."
Sun staff writers Will Englund in Moscow and Frank Langfitt in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
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