Afghanistan was held up as an example of U.S.-led nation-building just three months ago. But that optimism has succumbed to near-daily ambushes, bombings, execution-style killings and this week's downing of a U.S. military helicopter.
From U.S. and U.N. officials to Afghan villagers, fear is growing that this country may be at a seminal moment — with the barrage of violence in danger of overwhelming three years of state-building.
"After the presidential elections last year, everyone was optimistic that we were heading toward a stable, peaceful democracy. But it no longer seems that way," said Malalai Juya, a female candidate in September's upcoming elections. "Everyone is scared now. Security has been getting worse and worse by the day."
The resurgence of the Taliban insurgency could not have come at a worse time — with just 10 weeks remaining before key legislative elections that are the next step toward democracy after a generation of war.
Tuesday's downing of a special forces helicopter — and the loss of an elite military team still missing Friday — reinforced concerns that while American casualties here are far fewer than in Iraq, the rebellion may be fast becoming a mirror of the insurgency there.
Gang crimes, drug trade threatening stability
Stability also is threatened by a rise in crime, such as gangs kidnapping foreigners in Kabul. Opium and heroin trade is booming and resentment is growing toward the presence of U.S. forces, which erupted into deadly riots in May.
But it's not all bad news.
The first democratically elected president, Hamid Karzai, took office after relatively peaceful elections last October. The economy, at least in cities, is growing. Construction is on the rise in Kabul, cell phones are spreading and trade with neighbors Pakistan and Iran is lively.
One significant development is the emergence of the U.S.-trained Afghan army, which now numbers 26,000 and regularly fights alongside troops from the 20,000-strong U.S.-led coalition.
A separate NATO-led force of 8,000 soldiers is responsible for security in Kabul and the country's north and west. It plans to expand into the volatile south next year, freeing up American forces to go after Osama bin Laden, still thought to be hiding in the rugged mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.
The government has warned that bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters and the Taliban rebels have launched a campaign of violence to subvert September's elections. It started with a suicide bombing inside a mosque in Kandahar on June 1 that killed the Kabul police chief and 19 others, officials said.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Mullah Latif Hakimi, who claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter this week, vowed rebel attacks will increase.
"This uprising will rage on until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan. We are going to break the back of these foreign troops," he told The Associated Press. "Our fighters are strong and our leader Mullah Omar is in charge."
Hakimi's exact tie to the Taliban leadership is unclear and his claims often prove exaggerated or untrue.
The loss of the helicopter follows three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 477 suspected insurgents, 47 Afghan police and soldiers, 134 civilians, and 45 U.S. troops.
"We have no estimate on the strength of the Taliban," Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Marad said.
Insurgency group to disintegrate?
In April, the former top U.S. military commander here, Lt. Gen. David Barno, estimated the number of insurgents at 2,000. He also predicted the near-total collapse of the rebel group within a year.
U.S. spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara said the military now believes the violence is likely to continue. "No matter what the enemy throws at us, it is no match for the joint efforts of the Afghan security forces and the coalition," he said.
But the rebels have earned the respect of some U.S. troops on the battlefield.
"The Taliban are good fighters. Much better than the rebels in Iraq," Capt. Dirk Ringgenberg, from the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, told The AP as he patrolled in central Afghanistan. "If you make the Taliban fight, they will fight until the end. But the Iraqis will shoot a few times and then run and hide."
Ringgenberg served in Iraq before coming to Afghanistan.
NATO is bringing in 3,000 more troops ahead of the elections to protect the polls. Karzai has said he thinks the violence will worsen.
Taliban well-trained, well-financed
Taliban rebels "just keep attacking," said Jan Mohammed Khan, governor of Uruzgan province. "Many of them have had terrorist training, they have good weapons and plenty of money."
He made the comments after fighting in his province left 25 dead, including nine tribal elders who Taliban rebels kidnapped and then killed.
Khan, like many top Afghan officials, pointed the finger of blame at Pakistan, claiming Islamabad is not doing enough to stop terrorism, or is complicit with it.
Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told AP last month that rebels were receiving support from "regional powers" rattled by Afghanistan's request for a long-term U.S. and NATO presence.
Pakistan vehemently denies any involvement in terrorism, saying it has done more than any other country in the fight against al-Qaida. About 70,000 Pakistani troops have fanned out along the border, and Islamabad boasts turning over 700 al-Qaida suspects to the United States.