KABUL, Afghanistan -- With nearly 300 Taliban commanders killed or captured in the past three months and insurgents routed from strongholds, there are signs that international forces might be gaining the upper hand in the war in Afghanistan.
Still, NATO is stopping short of claiming to have broken the back of insurgents, who have been beaten back in the past, only to quickly regain lost territory. The Taliban have been battered in the south in offensives by fortified NATO forces, but militants have opened new fronts in the north.
Coalition officials are touting the successes ahead of Washington's year-end review of the war and a NATO gathering next month, where the top U.S.-NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, will seek to show the campaign deserves continued support.
"We genuinely believe that we are beginning to show real progress," said Mark Sedwill, the NATO force's top civilian official. "We're very cautious about it. We're not beating our chests suggesting that suddenly 2010 has been dramatically different from what happened before."
A little more than a year ago, Petraeus's predecessor Gen. Stanley McChrystal said the war effort was "deteriorating" and could fail without an influx of tens of thousands of additional troops. Soon after, President Barack Obama ordered more than 30,000 U.S. reinforcements, who finished arriving in Afghanistan at the end of August.
Sedwill said NATO commanders believe McChrystal's assessment "is no longer the case -- that we are on course to regain the initiative by the end of 2010."
In the past 90 days, 293 insurgent leaders have been captured or killed, and the Taliban are finding it increasingly difficult to replace commanders, according to a senior operations adviser at NATO headquarters in Kabul.
Over the same period, 858 lower-level militants have been killed and another 2,169 foot soldiers captured, although some could end up back on the battlefield, said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details of coalition activities.
The first major offensive since Obama ordered the reinforcements came in February against Marjah, in Helmand province. U.S. forces wrested control of the southern, poppy-producing hub, but eight months on, the Taliban are still waging a guerrilla insurgency.
The coalition says central Helmand is in the "hold" phase of Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy -- clearing militants from a territory, holding it, building it and then transferring it to the Afghans.
Four new schools have opened in Marjah. Three hundred trained Afghan policemen are patrolling, and there is now a police recruiting station in Marjah, where the former police were so corrupt that residents feared them more than the Taliban.
But Helmand remains dangerous. At least 17 of the 33 U.S. troops killed so far this month died in Helmand, where insurgents pretend to be farmers, bury guns in haystacks and make bombs from fertilizer.
More broadly, NATO still lacks several hundred trainers needed to prepare Afghan soldiers and policemen to take the lead in the fight by 2014, a key part of the strategy.
This summer, months after Marjah, tens of thousands of Afghan and international troops flooded neighboring Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency. The forces established checkpoints around Kandahar city, the largest city in the south, and have worked to clear insurgents from surrounding districts of Zhari, Arghandab and Panjwai.
"Right now there has been some peace achieved and the Taliban don't have that much power, so there is less violence," said Nawab Shakoor Ahmed, a 52-year-old baker in Kandahar. "But such changes have appeared many times before."
"When such operations take place, the Taliban prefer to go undercover and when these (coalition) forces think they have almost achieved their goal and plan to slow down -- or we could say they get exhausted -- then the Taliban reappear out of nowhere with their full strength."
In September 2006, a Canadian-led force pushed the Taliban out of Zhari and Panjwai in an operation that cost 28 coalition lives. Months later, the Taliban were back.
A NATO intelligence official said Taliban fighters in the south are under strain, frustrated by shortages in equipment and money due to the interdiction of supplies and a decrease opium production caused by a poppy disease.
He said intelligence shows the Taliban are having trouble getting insurgents to accept leadership roles -- more so in Kandahar than Helmand -- because so many have been killed and captured. There have been cases of insubordination against new Taliban leaders brought in from outside Kandahar to fill positions, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share intelligence from the field.
But he cautioned that September, October and November typically are the months when the Taliban slow down their operations after heavy fighting in the summer and spring.
The Taliban deny they are being beaten down.
"In some areas, the enemy (the coalition) cannot move forward due to fear of ambushes and strikes with improvised explosive devices," the Taliban said in a statement posted on its website. "Afghan Taliban fighters have not felt much impact from the campaign, but have turned to guerrilla tactics and not moving around in large numbers."
Coalition success in the second phase of Petraeus's strategy -- improving governance and development -- is anecdotal and uneven at best.
President Hamid Karzai visited Arghandab this month and met with more than 200 tribal elders to rally support. Karzai promised more electricity was on its way -- with the first of two 10 megawatt power plants scheduled to be running by December, providing power to up to 15,000 additional homes.
Still, insurgents continue to attack police and local officials. On a single day earlier this month, they killed Kandahar's deputy mayor and a former district chief in Arghistan.
Meanwhile, there have been outbreaks in other provinces -- Baghdis in the northwest, Kunduz and Baghlan and Takhar in the north. A bombing in a packed mosque this month killed Kunduz's governor and 19 others.
In the east, the coalition has stepped up attacks on the Haqqani network, an al-Qaida-linked Taliban faction based across the border in Pakistan. About 250 Haqqani militants were captured and 115 killed in June, July and August, the intelligence official said. The coalition estimates the network has some 2,500 fighters.
Coalition forces also have disrupted their training camps and taken out some strongholds in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces along the border with Pakistan.
The network's leader Jalaluddin Haqqani is sick, and his son Saraj is commanding operations, the official said. The killing and capturing of midlevel commanders has forced the Haqqanis to depend on less experienced fighters and has foiled attacks, which the network plans 30 to 60 days ahead of execution, the official said. However, the network runs an effective disinformation campaign, making it difficult to know who is in charge, he said.