A new and possibly decisive chapter of the Afghan war is unfolding. The U.S. is preparing a major attack on the Taliban, the militants are being squeezed in their Pakistani sanctuaries, and the Afghan government is trying to draw them into peace talks.
While "not prepared to say we've turned a corner," the top U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told reporters at a NATO meeting Thursday that he is more optimistic than last summer and now believes the situation is no longer deteriorating.
Much could still go wrong. Even if all the cards fall in NATO's favor, the conflict will likely persist for years.
But the U.S. and its partners now have a better shot at blunting the growth of the Taliban, the austere Islamic movement that rebounded four years ago after being driven from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion after it refused to severe links to al-Qaida.
If NATO recaptures the momentum, it could encourage the militants in time to seek a political settlement, which U.S. officials believe is the only way to end the conflict.
Deploying Obama's mission
For now, attention is focused on what will be the first big test of President Barack Obama's surge — an assault by thousands of U.S. Marines and soldiers on Marjah, a southern Afghan city of 80,000 people and the hub of Taliban logistics. Aid teams are supposed to follow the troops to re-establish public services and government control in hopes of winning public support.
It will be the first major combat operation since Obama last December ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, gambling on turning the tide of war. Other NATO countries added 7,000 more.
The Taliban, mindful that Obama also pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in mid-2011, claim to be undaunted by the surge.
"The number of Taliban fighters is increasing day by day, not only in the south but in the north of Afghanistan as well," says Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi. "It doesn't matter if the Americans increase the number of soldiers, the Taliban will continue to pursue jihad," he told The Associated Press.
Insurgent forces have grown steadily in Afghanistan — from fewer than 400 in 2004 to nearly 30,000, by NATO estimate.
But they are already feeling pressure. Village elders and former Taliban fighters tell the AP that many militants are returning from Pakistan because of stepped-up U.S. missile strikes there — one of which is believed to have killed the commander of the Pakistan Taliban — and Pakistan's offensive last year against Taliban in South Waziristan near the Afghan border.
At least some of the returning fighters have expressed interest in government offers of reconciliation. And those who fight on may be easier to handle in Afghanistan, corralled against NATO firepower, rather than in Pakistan, where foreign troops are banned from ground combat operations and the main weapon is missiles fired from pilotless drones.
For years, it has been hard to see any glimmer of hope amid rising casualties, roadside bombs and suicide attacks in a chaotic country with a centuries-old tradition of banishing foreign armies.
Last year, according to AP's count, at least 499 U.S. and NATO service members died in Afghanistan, almost as many as in the previous two years combined, and U.S. officials warn of more bloodshed to come.
There's still widespread skepticism that President Hamid Karzai, re-elected last year in a ballot marred by massive fraud on his behalf, will fulfill his promises to eliminate corruption, improve public services and thus blunt the Taliban's appeal.
Taliban shadow governments now operate in nearly all the 34 provinces. Taliban courts mete out Islamic justice and settle village property disputes often faster — and many Afghans say more fairly — than the government's own judiciary.
Last month, Taliban suicide fighters stormed the center of Kabul, paralyzing the capital for hours and sending government officials fleeing to bunkers before the attackers were all killed.
Mullah Mahmood, a village elder and former Taliban commander in Ghazni province, said his district has seen an influx of militants returning from Pakistan. They patrol on motorbikes in groups of 10 to 15, run Islamic courts and require families to contribute one man to their ranks, he told the AP.
"The pressure from the Pakistani army and drones is causing people to come here," he said. "This year they have new Japanese motorcycles, weapons and bullets. Villagers are providing food."
However, the Taliban have had little success in recruiting outside the Pashtun community, the largest ethnic group with about 40 percent of the population. Although disenchantment with the Karzai government extends nationwide, so far the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks have shown little enthusiasm for the Taliban, which massacred many of them in the 1990s.
Richard Barrett, chief of the U.N.'s al-Qaida and Taliban monitoring team, says the movement may be approaching the limits of its expansion, but there are signs it is becoming more cohesive. It is developing a command structure that extends from the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to commanders in the field.
Such cohesion may make it harder to woo low-level Taliban fighters with promises of jobs and housing as envisaged by Karzai at a conference in London last month where he appealed for international funding.
Those who quit the battlefield and disavow al-Qaida must feel protected and receive an "immediate package of support," said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Karzai's point man on reconciliation. "That will give a positive signal to the rest that it's safe to come back."
Previous attempts at reconciliation faltered, in part for lack of funding. The U.N. says only about 170 ex-militants left the insurgency last year under local peace plans.
"We've done a good job bringing them in," said Sana Gul Kochai, the head of the reconciliation program for the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan. "But of course they become disappointed and demoralized when they don't get land or jobs."
Are peace talks possible?
Qari Fazel Rahman Farouqi, who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and led a cell attacking NATO supply convoys in Pakistan, said he was willing to take a chance on reconciliation. The bearded commander reported to regional reconciliation authorities in Jalalabad with 18 of his men last weekend.
If he gets what was promised — especially immunity from prosecution — he believes hundreds of his comrades may follow.
Karzai also hopes to draw the Taliban into peace talks, but U.S. officials are skeptical because the insurgents are sure they are winning the war — a certainty the U.S. military hopes to change in the upcoming offensive.
Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to the U.S. military on Afghanistan, says one of the risks of robust peace overtures is that the Taliban will take them as a sign of desperation.
"One of the things the other side is trying to find out is how committed are we to succeeding," Biddle said.