U.S. forces and their allies in Afghanistan remembered the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in somber fashion on Saturday, conscious that the war on terror will be a long one.
It is more than a year since U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on a visit to Afghanistan that U.S. forces had moved from major combat to stabilization and reconstruction.
Since then, the Taliban insurgency has picked up rather than slowed, with more than a 1,000 people killed in militant-related violence in the past year. Soldiers with the 18,000-strong U.S.-led force on the ground expect no quick victory.
"We have all seen that in Afghanistan the road to freedom can be a hard struggle," Major-General Eric Olson, operations commander of the U.S.-led force, told a Sept. 11 commemoration at the main U.S. base at Bagram to the north of Kabul.
The sprawling Bagram base was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s during its doomed 10-year occupation of the country.
The ceremony was attended by around 200 U.S. soldiers and representatives of allied forces involved in the pursuit of Taliban, al-Qaida and other militants in Afghanistan.
They saw video footage of the attacks on the World Trade center and the Pentagon and heard speeches extolling the virtues of honor, courage, freedom, sacrifice and faith, before a concluding chorus of "God Bless America."
U.S. servicemen seemed committed to the task.
"I am proud to be part of it," said Major Andy Preston, a ranger with the 25th Infantry Division who was working in the Pentagon when hijackers flew a plane into the building.
"It's an important time to remember those who were lost and why we are here. We have to prevent future ceremonies like this and future 9-11s."
'Three years not very long'
But the troops are under no illusions about the task ahead.
Command Sergeant Major Franklin Ashe, the senior enlisted soldier with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said they were making progress on all fronts and improving tactically every day.
"Nobody expected this to go fast," he said. "This is a global war and it's going to take many years to win."
Asked how long, Ashe replied: "I couldn't begin to imagine. I don't think three years is very long, but I hope we get it right before the next generation of Americans and our coalition partners have to come here to fight."
Afghans marked the anniversary with mixed emotions -- some glad of the U.S.-led intervention that toppled the Taliban after Sept 11, but others deeply suspicious of Washington's intentions.
Three years on, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of the world's worst act of terror, are still unknown and his al-Qaida group and Taliban guerrillas taunt the United States from the rugged Afghan interior.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt Afghanistan's first ever direct presidential elections to be held on Oct. 9 and boast of attacks that have U.S. forces pinned down in their bases.
Taliban official Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rehmani repeated its line that Sept. 11 was a pretext for invasion and that Washington had not proved it was the work of al Qaeda.
"America has proved it is a terrorist by killing thousands of Afghans through barbaric bombing. Even if Taliban government had sent Osama bin Laden out of the country the Americans would still have attacked Afghanistan," he told Reuters.
Haji Abdul Razaq, a 50-year-old resident of Spin Boldak on the Pakistan border, said Washington had not fully succeeded.
"Sept. 11 paved the way for the ouster of the Taliban and brought some hope but there has been no improvement."
U.S. President George W. Bush is hoping a peaceful Afghan election will offset negative publicity from Iraq and provide a fillip for his own re-election chances in November, but analysts said he could not claim Afghanistan as a success story.
"Unlike Iraq, the tragedy is that this could have been a success story and three years on it's not," said Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit think tank.
"It reminds us how important it is for the international community to engage for the long term and it's clear that three years on it has yet to do that."