KABUL, Afghanistan – President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan has bought time to tackle the core issues behind the conflict — ineffectual government, corruption and insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan — but has achieved no breakthrough in the nearly 10-year war.
Months of intense fighting have pushed the Taliban out of longtime strongholds in parts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces — although the militants are by no means defeated.
Attacks in the capital of Kabul have become rare, but insurgents operate in nearby provinces.
Yet by its own estimate, offered in a five-page year-end review released Thursday, the Obama administration acknowledged that while Taliban momentum has been stopped in some areas and reversed in others, "gains remain fragile and reversible." At least 480 American troops have been killed this year — the bloodiest since the war began in October 2001 — compared to 317 in 2009 and 155 in 2008.
New U.S. intelligence reports paint a bleak picture. The reports, known as National Intelligence Estimates, cite progress in areas where there are enough U.S. or NATO troops to maintain security, but say much of the country remains under Taliban control or vulnerable to Taliban infiltration, according to an official who read the executive summary.
That's a view shared by a number of independent analysts and organizations that work in Afghanistan.
Road travel from Kabul to other major cities is risky for Afghans and out of the question for Westerners due to the threat of kidnapping at Taliban checkpoints.
The international Red Cross said last week that violence is on the rise across the country. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an international think tank, said there is "little proof that the operations have disrupted the insurgency's momentum or increased stability."
"The (American) story line does not match facts on the ground," the group said in a Nov. 28 report.
"NATO forces are not winning in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan cannot succeed without two essential elements: a legitimate, functioning government; and measures that deprive insurgents of external sanctuary and support," analyst Matt Waldman wrote in a review for London's Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank.
In announcing his troop surge on Dec. 2, 2009, Obama said the move was intended "to seize the initiative" from the Taliban "while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."
Clearly, the U.S. and its allies have achieved some success in taking the initiative, especially in the Taliban heartland of the south.
The U.S.-led coalition said 2,469 insurgents were captured and 952 were killed during the 90-day period ending Dec. 2. NATO maintains that a campaign to capture or kill key midlevel insurgent commanders has weakened the rebel command structure and may in time encourage lower-ranking fighters to leave the battlefield.
Military operations around Kandahar have reduced the number of bombings in the city, which a year ago seemed at risk of slipping out of government control, while U.S. commanders also cite progress in pacifying central Helmand province.
To defend those gains — and expand them nationwide — the U.S. and NATO need to make progress on building up the capacity and effectiveness of the Afghan government at national and local levels, bolstering Afghan security forces and convincing Pakistan to shut down the insurgent sanctuaries along the border.
Of those, the most challenging is Pakistan.
The Pakistani military has stepped up operations against Islamic extremist groups it considers a threat to its own security — notably the Pakistani Taliban. So far, however, Islamabad has refused U.S. requests to launch an offensive in the North Waziristan area against militants such as the Haqqani network that focus attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan maintains its forces are too stretched to move into North Waziristan without drawing down troops facing archrival India.
In a September 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Anne Patterson, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, concluded that billions of dollars in American aid won't convince Pakistan to sever ties with all militant groups because it considers them part of its arsenal against India.
Nearly as challenging is the task of building up Afghanistan's government, widely seen by its own public as corrupt and ineffective. Efforts to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai have soured relations with a national leader seeking to promote an image of independence from his foreign backers.
On Dec. 16, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Taliban "control far less territory today than they did a year ago" but that governance and development — keys to the counterinsurgency strategy — "are taking longer than expected."
"Many of our accomplishments ... are tenuous and can be lost. Indeed, they will be lost if good governance and responsible civic responsibilities are not assumed by the Afghan government with the same alacrity and the same courage as that shown by troops on the ground," the top U.S. military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, said this week.
Meanwhile, there is little sign that the Taliban are interested in taking up Karzai's offer of peace talks. The hardline leadership has repeatedly denied it is interested in negotiations as long as foreign forces remain in the country.
Last month, NATO officials reported a promising breakthrough — a representative of the Taliban leadership had taken part in top-level peace talks with the Afghan government during the summer.
Later, officials confirmed the Taliban negotiator was an impostor.
Patrick Quinn is The Associated Press' News Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan and has reported from the region for more than a decade.