KABUL, Afghanistan – One year after President Barack Obama ordered a troop buildup to halt the Taliban's momentum, the war in Afghanistan has not broken decisively in favor of U.S.-led forces — at least not yet.
While NATO forces have routed insurgents from their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's strongest region, the militants have opened new fronts in the north and west and have stepped up attacks in the east.
At the same time, the surge has exacted a high price: More than 680 international troops, including at least 472 Americans, have been killed in 2010, making it the deadliest year of the war. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have also died, most as a result of Taliban attacks.
There has been little progress in dislodging the militants from their sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. A corrupt and ineffectual Afghan government remains a fragile pillar of the U.S. war strategy. And many Afghans expect the Taliban to return to their southern strongholds when the winter snows melt.
"Will they come back? This will be answered in the spring," said Sadeek Dhottani, a 41-year-old farmer in Marjah. "What I think is yes they probably will because when spring appears, the Taliban always show up with greater force and enthusiasm."
The White House's year-end report on the war, to be released this week, is expected to express confidence that Afghan forces can take the lead in securing the country by the end of 2014, but also raise troubling questions about Pakistan's efforts to root out militants.
Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has called for patience, saying that the extra 30,000 U.S. troops, along with about 10,000 additional NATO forces, just finished arriving at the end of August — roughly nine months after Obama ordered the buildup on Dec. 1, 2009.
Patience as the war plods on, however, is something Afghans are running short of. Tired of the fighting, they wonder why their daily lives have not markedly improved despite billions of dollars in foreign assistance and thousands of foreign troops on their soil for more than nine years.
"I am not able to calmly come to my shop from my house," Sayed Rahmat, a 27-year-old shopkeeper in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan, which has not seen the tentative security gains that Afghan and NATO troops have achieved in the south.
"If we don't have security, then we don't have work opportunities," Rahmat told The Associated Press. "Every day that passes, the security situation is getting worse. The government is not in a position to bring peace. Every day, the Taliban are getting more powerful than the government."
In northern Afghanistan, security has been deteriorating for the past two years in Kunduz and surrounding provinces, hideouts for the Taliban, al-Qaida and fighters from other militant factions, including the Haqqani network.
Using Badghis province as a hub, the Taliban also have spread their influence in western Afghanistan and now control several districts.
Petraeus says that in the past few months the coalition has arrested the Taliban's momentum in some parts of eastern Afghanistan and in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the focus of the U.S.-led campaign. According to the coalition, 2,469 insurgents were captured and 952 were killed during the 90-day period ending Dec. 2.
The coalition also has ramped up the air war in Afghanistan since this summer. In the first 11 months of the year, coalition aircraft have used 5,465 bombs and Hellfire missiles, exceeding the 4,184 dropped in all of last year.
Whether the counterinsurgency strategy — clearing militants from a territory, holding it, developing it and then transferring it to the Afghans — will ultimately be deemed successful depends a lot on perception. Local government officials can tout a development project, but a few high-profile bombings can fuel the insurgents' fear and intimidation campaign. It's hard for Afghans to back foreigners if they think they're going to be killed as a result.
According to a quarterly report by the coalition, number of Afghans who rate their security situation as "bad" is the highest since the nationwide survey began in September 2008. This downward trend is likely a result of the steady rise in violence since the beginning of the year, the report said.
"The situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country," more than 30 academics, aid workers and others working in Afghanistan wrote in an open letter to Obama last week.
"It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition."
The Obama administration plans to begin a modest withdrawal of troops next July although the White House insists it will not abandon Afghanistan. There are currently about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But key players have been hedging their bets, uncertain whether the administration is prepared to stay for the long haul, will move quickly to exit an increasingly unpopular conflict, or something in between.
Pakistan, America's nominal ally, says it's fighting insurgents. But it still tolerates al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban militants hiding out on its soil — out of reach of U.S.-led NATO ground forces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has opened communication channels with insurgents interested in reconciling, but no formal peace talks are on the horizon.
There are other significant challenges off the battleground.
Bribery, graft and political payoffs are commonplace all the way up to the highest levels of the Afghan government, undermining the people's confidence in its ability to protect them and provide services.
The growth of the Afghan security forces has exceeded goals, but a shortfall of 770 international trainers threatens to impede plans for Afghan soldiers and police to take the lead in securing the country by 2014.
Improvements in governance and development — the second phase of Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy — are uneven and lag security gains.
"The foreigners seem more focused on providing us services, said Ismail Jalal Zai, a 23-year-old day laborer in the southern Afghan district of Marjah. "If you ask about the local government, I can barely see their interest in providing for us. Their attitude is about the same as before."
Nevertheless, security has improved in Marjah, where the police once were so corrupt that residents feared them more than the Taliban. A major offensive in February to rout the Taliban yielded slower than expected returns, but the troop buildup later in the year has pushed insurgents to the outskirts of the main center of the district.
"We sure can see the difference if we compare today with last year when just moving in and out of Marjah was difficult and dangerous and we barely traveled," Zai said.
Security also has improved elsewhere in central Helmand province, particularly Nawa, where Afghan security forces now outnumber U.S. troops. But the coalition remains engaged in fierce fighting in Sangin district in the northern part of the province. British forces suffered heavy casualties in Sangin, and the U.S. has lost at least 38 service members since it took over in September.
This summer, tens of thousands of Afghan and international troops flooded neighboring Kandahar province. The forces established checkpoints around Kandahar city, where gunmen had assassinated the deputy mayor in April as he knelt for evening prayers in a mosque — one of several government officials who have been slain.
"You can see that it's working because for many months we have not heard an explosion in the city," said Kandahar Mayor Gulam Hamidi.
That was until Saturday, when a car bomb exploded outside police headquarters, wounding two civilians and four policemen and blowing out windows up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) away. Hamidi, who travels in a bulletproof vehicle, said the bombing was carried out by insurgents aided by corrupt Afghan policemen.
"A few policemen sold out their souls to the insurgents," he said.
There also has been heavy fighting in the surrounding districts of Zhari, Arghandab and Panjwai, once the home turf of the Taliban's one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar. Coalition and Afghan forces have conducted night raids and airstrikes, destroyed weapons and bomb-making factories and cleared roadside mines.
On Sunday, the Taliban retaliated. A minibus packed with explosives blew up the entrance of a joint NATO-Afghan base in Zhari. Two Afghan soldiers died in the blast. Six American servicemen will return home in coffins.
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Anne Gearan in Baghdad contributed to this report.