KABUL, Afghanistan — Rising death tolls, military timetables slowed. Infighting in the partner government. War-weary allies packing up to leave — and others eyeing an exit.
Events this spring — from the battlefields of Helmand and Kandahar to the halls of Congress — have served as a reality check on the Afghan war, a grueling fight in a remote, inhospitable land that once harbored the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Taliban have proven resilient and won't be easily routed. Good Afghan government won't blossom any faster than flowers in the bleak Afghan deserts. Phrases like "transition to Afghan control" mask the enormous challenge ahead to make those words reality.
President Barack Obama may face a difficult choice next year: slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops that he promised would start in July 2011 or risk an Afghanistan where the Taliban have a significant political role.
This week's hearings on Capitol Hill revealed deep concern within Congress over Pentagon assurances of progress in the nearly nine-year war. Members of Congress complained of mounting casualties — at least 53 foreign troop deaths this month, including 34 Americans.
That prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to complain about negative perceptions in Washington about the war, even though his top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, acknowledged "we all have angst" about the course of the conflict.
Truth lies in both camps. Bombs and battles are far less frequent in Kabul than in Baghdad during the height of the Iraq war. The major Afghan cities of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west are relatively quiet.
In the countryside, however, where three-quarters of Afghanistan's nearly 30 million people live, the insurgents still wield power, operating their own Islamic courts and intimidating government supporters.
Progress is real but scattered and incremental. All parties predict a tough summer. July 2011 may be too soon to ensure success — even though the top NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, acknowledges he is under pressure to show progress by the end of the year.
Instead of spurring the Afghans to step up to the plate, the July 2011 date has encouraged President Hamid Karzai to seek a deal with the Taliban despite U.S. misgivings that the time is right for a settlement.
"Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain," former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote this week.
A few months ago, things seemed to be improving. In February, the United States and its allies seized the insurgents' southern stronghold of Marja, rushing in a local administration and promising development aid to win the loyalty of the people.
NATO and Afghan troops also delivered blows to the militants in the north and west. After Marja, the alliance shifted attention to Kandahar, promising to ramp up security in the largest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters.
Within weeks, however, the Taliban were back in Marja, threatening and assassinating those who cooperated with the Americans and their Afghan partners. The security effort in Kandahar slowed to a crawl.
The Taliban planted more of their favorite weapon — roadside bombs the military calls improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
The IEDs not only account for most of the deaths among international troops, they also reduce their effectiveness. With so many bombs along roads and footpaths, troops on patrol can cover only a limited area since they must move slowly while searching for hidden IEDs.
In April, gunmen assassinated the deputy mayor of Kandahar as he knelt for evening prayers in a mosque. This month, a car bomb killed the chief of the Kandahar district of Arghandab. Days before, a suicide bomber killed 56 people at a wedding party in the same district.
Those setbacks came as no surprise to commanders in Afghanistan, many of whom cautioned after Marja that major challenges lay ahead. More casualties are inevitable as the United States pours more troops into Afghanistan — from about 30,000 in 2008 to more than 94,000 now. About 10,000 more are due in August.
But in a war without front lines, it becomes difficult to quantify progress. Cities don't fall to victorious forces. Real estate doesn't change hands as in conventional wars.
Instead, the Afghan war is a battle for public support — a challenge for a foreign power without a reliable local partner. NATO's policy of working alongside the Afghan government means each suffers a loss of prestige from the other's mistakes.
Support for the war is also fading in the United States and Europe.
The Dutch plan to pull their 1,600 troops from Afghanistan by August. Canada, with about 2,800 soldiers, plans to end its combat role next year. Poland wants NATO to draw up an exit strategy. Britain's new prime minister expresses support for the war but has ruled out sending more troops.
Despite assurances, many pro-government Afghans fear they may be abandoned by the United States after Obama's July 2011 date to start the withdrawal.
"It is better for foreign forces to stay," said Aziza Misami, a member of the provincial council in Ghazni. "Unfortunately, when the foreign troops leave, the first victim will be Afghan women because the Taliban don't like women. The second victim will be the Afghan nation."