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A year of some success but troubling questions

KABUL, Afghanistan - One year after President Obama ordered a troop buildup to halt the Taliban's momentum, the war in Afghanistan has not broken decisively in favor of U.S.-led forces - at least not yet.

KABUL, Afghanistan - One year after President Obama ordered a troop buildup to halt the Taliban's momentum, the war in Afghanistan has not broken decisively in favor of U.S.-led forces - at least not yet.

While NATO forces have routed insurgents from their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's strongest region, the extremists have opened new fronts in the north and west and have stepped up attacks in the east.

At the same time, the surge has exacted a high price: More than 680 international troops, including at least 472 Americans, have been killed in 2010, making it the deadliest year of the war. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have also died, most as a result of Taliban attacks.

There has been little progress in dislodging the extremists from their sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. A corrupt and ineffectual Afghan government remains a fragile pillar of the U.S. war strategy. And many Afghans expect Taliban fighters to return to their southern strongholds when the winter snows melt.

"Will they come back? This will be answered in the spring," said Sadeek Dhottani, 41, a farmer in Marjah. "What I think is, yes, they probably will, because when spring appears, the Taliban always show up with greater force and enthusiasm."

The White House's year-end report, to be released Thursday, is expected to express confidence that Afghan forces can take the lead in securing the country by the end of 2014 but also to raise troubling questions about Pakistan's efforts to root out extremists.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has called for patience, saying that the extra 30,000 U.S. troops, along with about 10,000 additional NATO personnel, just finished arriving at the end of August - roughly nine months after Obama ordered the buildup Dec. 1, 2009.

Patience as the war plods on is something Afghans are running short of. Tired of the fighting, they wonder why their daily lives have not markedly improved despite billions of dollars in foreign aid and thousands of foreign troops on their soil for more than nine years.

"I am not able to calmly come to my shop from my house," said Sayed Rahmat, 27, a shopkeeper in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan.

"If we don't have security, then we don't have work opportunities," he said. "Every day that passes, the security situation is getting worse. The government is not in a position to bring peace. Every day, the Taliban are getting more powerful."

In northern Afghanistan, security has been deteriorating for two years in Kunduz and surrounding provinces, hideouts for the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and fighters from other extremist factions, including the Haqqani network. Using Badghis province as a hub, Taliban fighters also have spread their influence in western Afghanistan and now control several districts.

Petraeus says that in the last few months the coalition has arrested the Taliban's momentum in some parts of eastern Afghanistan and in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the focus of the U.S.-led campaign. According to the coalition, 2,469 insurgents were captured and 952 killed during the 90-day period ending Dec. 2. The coalition also has ramped up the air war in Afghanistan since this summer.

Whether the counterinsurgency strategy - clearing extremists from a territory, holding it, developing it, and then transferring it to the Afghans - will ultimately be deemed successful depends on perception. Local officials can tout a development project, but a few high-profile bombings can fuel fear.

According to a quarterly report by the coalition, the number of Afghans who see the security situation as "bad" is the highest since the nationwide survey began in September 2008. The downward trend is likely a result of the steady rise in violence since the beginning of the year, the report said.

"The situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country," more than 30 academics, aid workers, and others working in Afghanistan wrote in an open letter to Obama last week.

"It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition."

The Obama administration plans to begin a modest withdrawal of troops in July, although the White House insists it will not abandon Afghanistan. But key players have been hedging their bets, uncertain whether the administration is prepared to stay for the long haul.

Pakistan, America's nominal ally, says it is fighting insurgents. But it still tolerates al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban extremists hiding out on its soil, out of reach of U.S.-led NATO ground forces.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has opened communication channels with insurgents interested in reconciling, but no formal peace talks are on the horizon and many in the government are involved in bribery, graft, and political payoffs.

Improvements in governance and development, the second phase of Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy, are uneven and lag security gains.

"The foreigners seem more focused on providing us services," said Ismail Jalal Zai, 23, a laborer in the southern Afghan district of Marjah. "If you ask about the local government, I can barely see their interest in providing for us. Their attitude is about the same as before."

Nevertheless, security has improved in Marjah, where the police once were so corrupt that residents feared them more than they feared the Taliban. "We sure can see the difference if we compare today with last year, when just moving in and out of Marjah was difficult and dangerous and we barely traveled," Zai said.

Security also has improved elsewhere in central Helmand province, but fierce fighting continues in Sangin.

Success is also reported in neighboring Kandahar. This summer, tens of thousands of Afghan and international troops flooded Kandahar, establishing checkpoints around the city, where gunmen assassinated the deputy mayor in April - one of several government officials who have been slain.

"You can see that it's working," Mayor Gulam Hamidi said, "because for many months, we have not heard an explosion in the city."

Obama to Speak On War Thursday

President Obama will make a statement Thursday on his review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.

The review is intended to determine progress on the president's goals for the war - now in its 10th year - including his plan to begin withdrawing some U.S. forces starting in July.

Gibbs said Obama was confident that the United States was making progress in the war - the latest signal that no major policy changes are planned.

- Bloomberg News