Remember the terrifying Taliban? A year ago, fighters loyal to the former Afghan regime were so active that half the country was off limits to foreign aid workers. But the Afghanistan that First Lady Laura Bush visited for the first time last week is a much different place. U.S., Afghan and even some former Taliban officials say the insurgency increasingly looks like a spent force. Taliban fighters used to slip into Afghanistan from their Pakistani hideouts in groups of 60 to 100; today each group numbers five or fewer. Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his 10 loyal commanders still direct military operations--but they're phoning it in, say coalition officials. An Afghan liaison with U.S. special forces says Omar was spotted two months ago in Karachi, Pakistan. A U.S. officer in Kandahar says a Taliban fighter was recently overheard lamenting on a radio, "Where are you, Omar? Why have you forsaken us?"
Where, indeed? The U.S. believes that nation-building efforts and the success of last October's presidential election have drained local support in former Taliban strongholds. There's irony in that, since the Taliban initially gained power because of its ability to quell fractious warlords and restore order. Now Hamid Karzai's government is sending out feelers to former Taliban fighters, offering some of them amnesty if they take a public oath of loyalty to the new Afghan constitution.
Diehards remain, as evidenced by several ambushes in southern Afghanistan last week, one of which injured two G.I.s. A former Taliban governor, Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, told TIME he is trying to persuade former comrades to give up their guns, but some are determined to keep fighting. "The Taliban have their backs to the wall," he said, "and they're still dangerous." --By Tim McGirk