KABUL, Afghanistan – It was what President Barack Obama called a "war of necessity," a conflict thrust upon America by the 9/11 attacks. As NATO's mission here winds down nearly 11 years later, the insurgents remain undefeated, corruption runs rife and the peace process is stuck in the sand.
Such is the bleak reality of Afghanistan as Obama and leaders of about 60 countries and organizations meet Sunday and Monday in Chicago to map their way out of an unpopular war. The goal is to develop a strategy that does not risk a repeat of the chaos that followed the Soviet exit two decades ago, which paved the way for the rise of al-Qaida.
With none of the NATO countries having the stomach to pursue the war much longer, the only viable option is to leave behind an Afghan army and police force capable of defending the country against the Taliban and its allies after the NATO combat mission is declared over at the end of 2014 and most of the coalition troops leave.
That would require no less than $4.1 billion a year from foreign coffers at a time when most of the countries are struggling with deficits and the specter of recession and bank failures. Without big handouts, Afghanistan simply cannot pay for its own defense.
"Our security forces last year cost $6 billion while our national revenue was $1.7 billion," said Ashraf Ghani, head of a commission overseeing the process of passing the baton to the Afghan forces. "Investment in our security forces is part of an investment in international security."
The challenge facing Obama and other world leaders will be to convince their own voters that Afghanistan is worth the investment. The war has already claimed the lives of at least 3,000 NATO service members — more than 1,840 of them American — and thousands of Afghans.
Support for the war has eroded in Europe and hit a new low in America. Only 27 percent of Americans say they back the effort while 66 percent oppose the war, according to an AP-GfK poll released earlier this month.
Pessimism and fatigue over Afghanistan stand in sharp contrast to the euphoria that accompanied the quick routing of the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies in 2001. With American and NATO jets in the skies and pro-Western Afghan fighters on the ground, the American-led coalition swept the Taliban from power in less than two months — without a single combat death among U.S. military forces.
But the Bush administration's shift toward war with Iraq left the Western powers without enough resources on the ground, so by 2006 the Taliban had regrouped into a serious military threat.
By the time Obama sent 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan had drained Western resources and sapped resolve to build a viable Afghan state, especially after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland, which has some 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, said Friday that those giving financial aid will face "tough decisions" over whether to spend on security or other civilian needs.
After meeting Obama at the White House, French President Francois Hollande said Friday he stood by his campaign pledge to withdraw his country's 3,300 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year but that France would keep supporting Afghanistan in a "different way."
Jawed Ludin, deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan, said Western powers should understand that terrorists in the region remain a global threat when they consider how much aid to give his country.
"This is not a charity that we are receiving," Ludin said. "Afghanistan is and will be on the front line of the world's fight against terrorism. We Afghans will be making sacrifices for years to come in what is essentially an international war."
He cautioned donors against trying to place conditions on the pledges. Making development and reconstruction aid conditional on the government's ability to fight corruption, for instance, might be acceptable, but not so with money to finance the security forces, Ludin said.
"Terrorism has never been a creation of Afghanistan. It was brought to us," he said. "Even today, it originates outside our own borders and our people have been victims as ... people in the West."
Ludin was referring to the al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, off-limits to NATO and Afghan ground forces.
Despite a nominal alliance with NATO, the Pakistanis have been unwilling or unable to rout militants from those sanctuaries, in part for fear of stirring up hatred among the ethnic Pashtun community that lives in both countries and provides most of the Taliban fighters.
Solidarity with their fellow Pashtuns and opposition to Western attacks against Muslims generated the rise in Pakistan of a Taliban movement, which the government in Islamabad has struggled to contain. The conflict has generated deep resentment among Pakistanis who believe they have been dragged into America's war.
Across the border, tens of thousands of coalition troops have flooded Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan the past two years and appear to have gained a better handle on security.
But the Taliban have shown resilience, reportedly stepping up attacks recently in three farming districts outside Kandahar city. The militants have also opened up new fronts in northern and western Afghanistan and are fighting back in the east. Questions remain as to whether the Afghan forces can ever secure the nation by themselves.
Foreign troops have begun their exodus — 33,000 Americans alone, or about one-third of the current U.S. force in Afghanistan, will be gone by the end of September. After most of the 130,000 international troops withdraw by the end of 2014, many Afghans fear their country will descend into civil war.
The Taliban continue to carry out spectacular suicide bombings and assassinate government workers and officials. A top member of the Afghan peace council was gunned down this month in the heavily guarded capital, Kabul, dealing another setback to the stalled effort to make peace with militants. In September, the head of the peace council was assassinated in his home by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
"The Taliban are trying to come back as rulers. I don't think that they want anything less than that," said Ismail Qasemyar, a member of the government-appointed peace council. "If there is no compromise or softening of their position, I think it will be very difficult to reach any agreement."
The Taliban pick up support among Afghans fed up with rampant corruption and the need to pay a bribe for a simple service. Government dysfunction leaves other Afghans demoralized and looking for a way out.
More Afghans fled the country and sought asylum abroad last year than in any other year since the start of the war, suggesting that many are looking for their own exit strategies as international troops withdraw. From January to November, more than 30,000 Afghans applied for political asylum worldwide, a 25 percent increase over the same period the previous year and more than triple the level of just four years ago, according to U.N. statistics.
Some civilians who remain in Afghanistan become victims of the fighting — usually Taliban attacks but sometimes NATO assaults. Many Afghans focus their blame on NATO, though, arguing that the mere presence of international troops encourages fighting. President Hamid Karzai has played into that rage with his frequent criticisms of night raids on homes.
In a troublesome twist, Afghan security forces are increasingly turning their guns on foreign troops, fracturing the fragile trust between Afghans and their partners.
Equally disturbing, an American Army staff sergeant has been accused of walking off his base and killing 17 Afghan villagers. And, at a time when anti-Western sentiment was already on the rise, Muslim holy books somehow got tossed into a burn pit at a U.S. base in February, prompting deadly anti-American protests across the nation.
Although Afghans fear the worst after the international forces leave, the continued presence of foreign troops is also sapping morale also among many Afghans.
"Listen to what the Afghans say," says NATO spokesman German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson. "There is a hunger for sovereignty."
There is some progress to report in Afghanistan.
NATO says that in every month since May 2011, it has recorded fewer militant-initiated attacks than the corresponding month of the year before — though data compiled by the United Nations suggests a less rosy trend.
Afghans have gained greater access to education and health care. More highways are being built, though most of Kabul's streets are unpaved and deeply rutted.
A network of railroads has been planned. The government has started awarding contracts for copper, iron ore and gold to reap revenue from its vast wealth of untapped minerals. Several government ministries have been upgraded and reformed.
Afghan police and soldiers have started taking charge of security in wide swaths of the country, though so far no area has fully transitioned to sole Afghan control.
"This isn't a sprint," said Brig. Gen. Richard Cripwell, who works on transition at the coalition's headquarters in Kabul. "We are absolutely on track to meet the goals of the Afghan national security forces being responsible for security across the country by the end of 2014."
The force is still plagued with graft and desertion, and many recruits can neither read nor write. Some Afghan forces have been accused of making side deals with the Taliban, yet many others have exhibited a sense of national pride and fearlessness in battle.
Some provincial officials complain that their forces lack equipment, ammunition, heavy weapons and even sturdy boots.
NATO is training a 352,000-member force, but the size is to shrink to about 230,000 sometime after 2015. The $4.1 billion a year will pay for the smaller force.
This strategy worries Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W. Bush's representative in Kabul following the collapse of the Taliban. He wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday that the coalition drawdown and the future cuts in Afghan forces were risky.
"Doing so will create a security gap that the Taliban and other insurgents and terrorists, operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan, could readily exploit."