KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's fighting season will begin by the end of this month as the trees bud and the last of the snows melt off the mountaintops — and with it, a chance to measure the success of NATO efforts to turn back the Taliban.
The ferocity of the Taliban's widely expected spring offensive to regain lost territory and execute suicide attacks and assassinations will influence President Barack Obama's decision about how many of the nearly 100,000 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan can start going home in July.
The extent to which the Taliban return to the fight will also help determine whether the surge of more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops that Obama announced in December 2009 arrested the insurgency.
The reinforcements have routed the Taliban from their strongholds, captured and killed mid- to upper-level leaders, destroyed militants' weapons caches and demolished their compounds — especially in southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the insurgency.
But the militants, who have shown their resiliency time and again, have taken the fight to other areas of country with high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. What's unknown is how strong the Taliban will prove to be as the fighting season gears up in what could be a defining year in the nearly decade-old war.
U.S. deaths are expected to climb, though the Americans have destroyed plenty of planted roadside bombs in the south over the past few months. Since the beginning of the war, 1,431 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, at least 77 of them so far this year.
The U.S.-led coalition, partnered with Afghan forces, did not pause its offensive against insurgents during the cold Afghan winter, when many militants took refuge across the border in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. Heavy rains also have slightly delayed the opium poppy season, with many Taliban expected to return to fighting after the crop is harvested later this month.
Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July but has stressed that the scale and pace will depend on conditions on the ground.