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 pickup lorries, hang their opponents in public and once more impose their austere brand of Islam on the country.
Although still much feared, experts say they do not 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 per cent of Afghanistan. But now the situation has completely changed," said Waheed Mujhda, a 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 US invasion in 2001, was able to sweep to power in 1995 partly because it was able to exploit the chaos gripping Afghanistan in the years following the end of the failed Soviet occupation.
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 (Dh551m) 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 US 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 high-profile 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 code name Qari Baryal.
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 manoeuvres towards peace negotiations could unfold, although the Taliban was open to conciliation.