With U.S. troop strength approaching 100,000, the Afghan war is entering its decisive phase. Without measurable progress in the coming months, political support for the conflict may collapse.
Back-to-back months of record U.S. military death tolls — 60 in June and 66 in July — shocked many Americans, even though the Pentagon had been warning of higher casualties this summer as the U.S. and its allies push into longtime Taliban strongholds around Kandahar city and in the southern province of Helmand.
The campaign is aimed at securing Kandahar, a city of about a half million, the major urban area of the ethnic Pashtun south and the former Taliban headquarters. Securing the city is considered pivotal if the NATO-led coalition is to reverse the Taliban momentum in their southern stronghold.
Failure would be a grave — if not fatal — blow to the entire NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.
It could encourage President Hamid Karzai, who was born near Kandahar, to seek a political deal with Taliban leaders on terms that Afghan ethnic minorities, women and the U.S. might find unfavorable. And it could discourage Pakistan from ever cracking down on Afghan Taliban fighters living in border sanctuaries since they may someday wield power in Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves.
But progress in breaking the Taliban's grip has been slow and difficult to measure in a war where the opinions of rural Afghan villagers are as important — if not more — than seizing strategic terrain. It's hard to explain the deaths of young soldiers without compelling evidence that their sacrifice was worth it.
Supporters of the counterinsurgency strategy which President Barack Obama embraced last year acknowledge that it will take time to determine whether the operations around Kandahar have achieved even modest success.
Even if Taliban attacks decline, it will take time to tell whether the insurgents have been driven off or simply went underground as they did in the Helmand town of Marjah, only to return later with more ambushes and roadside bombs.
Afghan civilians are unlikely to shift their support to the coalition and the Afghan government without compelling evidence that the Taliban are gone and that their own leaders are making good on promises of better public services and good governance.
'Very hard to tell'
"We're at one of those moments where it's very hard to tell whether things are going well or badly," Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations said in an interview with CFR.org website. "Counterinsurgency always has this 'darkest before the dawn' quality."
Time is one resource that the U.S. and its allies don't have.
Support for the war is already wavering in Washington and the capitals of the other allied nations that provide troops here. The Dutch ended their combat mission last weekend, and the Canadians plan to pull out next year. The Poles want to leave in 2012.
Last week, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives had to rely on Republican support to pass the almost $59 billion measure to finance Obama's additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and other programs. Twelve Republicans and 102 Democrats opposed it.
A prominent Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said congressional support could collapse next year if conservative Republicans withdraw their backing to make Obama look bad and if anti-war Democrats insist on a pullout.
"If, by December, we're not showing some progress, we're in trouble," Graham told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "And the question is, what is progress? Without some benchmarks and measurements, it's going to be hard to sell to the American people a continued involvement in Afghanistan."
With low public support and wavering resolve, the Obama administration has launched a fresh effort to portray U.S. goals in Afghanistan as modest — reminding Americans that Afghanistan was where the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were orchestrated.
"We face huge challenges in Afghanistan," Obama said Monday in Atlanta, where he announced that the U.S. would meet its goal of ending its combat mission in Iraq by the end of this month. "But it's important that the American people know that we are making progress and we're focused on goals that are clear and achievable."
Kandahar offensive slips
American officials had hoped to ramp up operations in the Kandahar area last spring. But the timetable slipped for numerous reasons, including public opposition within the city to stepped-up military operations and delays in getting enough trained Afghan troops in place.
In recent weeks, however, U.S. and Afghan troops have begun to challenge the Taliban in the lush Arghandab Valley and other districts around Kandahar. American troops are accelerating the training of Afghan police to provide security within the city itself.
The goal is to put an Afghan face on the security operation to counter Taliban allegations that the international troops are a foreign occupation force.
But the campaign faces major hurdles, some of them self-imposed.
Obama plans a review of the Afghan strategy at the end of the year and has pledged to begin withdrawing American troops in next July.
Although administration officials insist the withdrawal will be slow and based on security conditions on the ground, the dates have left Afghan officials confused about the Western commitment, despite repeated assurances that America and its allies won't abandon Afghanistan.
U.S. officers in southern Afghanistan say villagers are reluctant to cooperate with the Americans and their Afghan partners because they fear the Taliban will take retribution against them once the Americans have gone. The villagers simply don't trust the Afghan police to fill the security gap.
"There is nothing more tragic than watching beautiful theories being assaulted by gangs of ugly facts. It is time, however, to be far more realistic about the war in Afghanistan," former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in June for the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "It may well still be winnable, but it is not going to be won by denying the risks, the complexity, and the time that any real hope of victory will take."
Robert H. Reid is AP chief of bureau in Kabul and news director for Afghanistan-Pakistan.