KABUL A secret NATO report showing the strength of confidence among the Afghan Taliban is raising concerns from Kabul to Washington that the militant group might overrun the country again when foreign combat forces finally leave.
But analysts doubt the militants, who rose from the ashes of Afghanistan's civil war, will be able to again race into the capital in pick-up trucks, hang their opponents in public and once more impose their austere brand of Islam on the country.
Although still much feared, experts say they don't have the military capability to seize control of the whole country when NATO combat troops withdraw in 2014.
Despite the bold predictions of Taliban detainees whose opinions formed the basis of the NATO report, which was leaked last week, circumstances have changed substantially. A partial comeback appears to be the best the Taliban can hope for.
"When they ruled before, many people had fled Afghanistan. There was no young generation. Without much fighting, they captured 90 percent of Afghanistan. But now the situation has completely changed," said Waheed Mujhda, Kabul-based expert on the Taliban.
"They accept that the time has changed. They accept that it's impossible for one party to capture all Afghanistan and rule all over Afghanistan."
The Taliban, ousted after a U.S. invasion in 2001, was able to sweep to power in 1996 partly because it was able to exploit the chaos gripping Afghanistan in the years following the end of the failed Soviet occupation.
DIFFICULT TO TOPPLE GOVERNMENT
The Afghan army and security forces may still be deeply flawed, but their mere size would make it difficult for the Taliban to simply topple the government when NATO troops go.
With an estimated 25,000 fighters at the most, the Taliban is hugely outnumbered by NATO and Afghan forces.
Its budget too is minuscule, put at just $150 million a year. By contrast, the United States has spent some $500 billion on its 10-year war there.
"The government is very fragile but we have to keep in mind it is supported by a 250,000 strong security apparatus ... which is also supported by the international community and these two big elements were missing when the Taliban seized the country in the mid-90s," said Pakistani security analyst Imtiaz Gul.
Without tanks and fighter planes, the Taliban could find itself battling government forces -- and remaining Western special forces - for years.
And a survey by The Asia Foundation showed that the proportion of respondents who say they had some level of sympathy with the motives of armed opposition groups reached its lowest level last year.
Also standing in the way would be the threat of a renewed civil war from the Taliban's old ethnic foes, a small army of Western advisers likely to remain after 2014, and the opposition of many ordinary Afghans.
A surge in U.S. and NATO troop numbers that began in 2010 has suppressed the Taliban on the open battlefield, forcing the insurgency last year to turn to assassinations and audacious attacks in Kabul to regain a psychological advantage.
Taliban commanders still speak of waging jihad until Islamic rule is restored. But some militants are starting to long for a peaceful end to Afghanistan's years of conflict.
"There are fighters who had suffered losses, lost their family members in fighting and became homeless who want a peaceful solution to the long war," said a Taliban commander who identified himself by his codename, Qari Baryal.
Afghanistan's fate after 2014 may depend on how neighboring Pakistan views the Taliban, with which it has historical ties.
The NATO report said Pakistani intelligence was supporting the Taliban, an allegation Islamabad denied.
However, analysts say Pakistan does not want to see the Taliban in power again because that could embolden militants fighting the Pakistani state, though the regional power still wants a say in Afghanistan.
A senior Western diplomat involved in Afghan reconciliation efforts said he detected caution among Pakistani officials.
"I got the strong impression that Pakistan does not see a Taliban takeover to be in its interests," he told Reuters.
In a surprise announcement last month, the Afghan Taliban announced it would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting the group may be willing to negotiate -- for government positions or official control over much of its historical southern heartland.
That also suggests it thinks the odds of a complete takeover are slim and is instead looking for major gains in the political arena.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said it was too soon to say how political maneuvers towards peace negotiations could unfold, although the Taliban was open to conciliation.
But there are questions over how cohesive the Taliban can remain.
Ghulam Jelani Zwak, director of Afghan Analytical and Advisory Centre, said he believed peace talks and the NATO withdrawal would lead to the break-up of the Taliban between more extreme insurgents and those willing to accept a peace deal.
"But there is no open sign of disaffection in the Taliban, and so we can only guess at that," he said.
The Taliban's medieval justice and punishment system -- including hangings, oppression of women and amputating the limbs of thieves -- was initially accepted by Afghans because it brought security and an end to a period of chaotic warlord rule.
Today, many Afghans have grown accustomed to improved access for women to education and work, and an economy in which growth has averaged 9.1 percent. Foreign investment has climbed sharply from zero in Taliban days to a peak of $300 million in 2008.
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are catching on among young Afghans, providing a forum for users to criticize the government and the Taliban.
Kamran Bokhari, a South Asia expert at global intelligence firm STRATFOR, said the Taliban had become interested in a political solution over fighting because it needed both a withdrawal of foreign troops and international acceptance of a more moderate face to take part in eventual power sharing.
For those still fighting against Taliban militants, they remain a formidable foe. They have proven resilient in the face of American-led NATO firepower during the war, outsmarting the best U.S. military minds through the use of homemade bombs, sophisticated high-profile attacks and political savvy.
At remote Afghan army posts, soldiers like Nassem Gul doubt their own ability to repel the Taliban that has kept NATO at bay for over a decade.
"When the Taliban try to overrun our post, we think first to call NATO air support. If there is no air support it is very difficult to fight and even hold this post," said Gul, complaining he needs heavier weapons than his AK-47 rifle.
(Additional reporting by Serena Chaudhry and Qasim Nauman in ISLAMABAD and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL, Editing by Michael Georgy and Jonathan Thatcher)