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Uncertainty over U.S. plans as Afghan war enters 10th year

KABUL, Afghanistan — It's make-or-break time in Afghanistan.

The war enters its 10th year today, and this is no ordinary anniversary.

With extra American troops now in place, this is the critical juncture to determine if President Barack Obama's revised war strategy will work and reverse Taliban momentum.

Key players are hedging their bets, uncertain whether the Obama administration is prepared to stay for the long haul, move quickly to exit an increasingly unpopular conflict, or something in between.

Fearing that his Western allies may in the end abandon him, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has started to prepare his nation for a withdrawal of international forces by shoring up relations with neighboring Pakistan and reaching out to insurgents interested in reconciliation.

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

Public support for the war is slipping in the United States and Western Europe. Already, the Netherlands has pulled out its troops, the first NATO country to do so. The Canadians leave next.

Afghans are also tired of the violence and increasingly resentful of foreign forces. Many wonder why their quality of life has not markedly improved when their nation has been awash in billions of dollars of foreign aid.

"NATO is here and they say they are fighting terrorism, and this is the 10th year and there is no result yet," Karzai said in an emotional speech last week.

All this is very different from the near universal international support the Bush administration enjoyed when it launched attacks on Oct. 7, 2001. The war was aimed at toppling the Taliban from power because they harbored Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon less than a month earlier.

The hardline Islamic regime collapsed within two months without a single American combat death. But when the Bush administration's attention shifted to Iraq in 2003, the Taliban began to regroup. After several years of relative calm and safety, the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate around 2006. The Taliban have steadily gained strength since then. And bin Laden remains at large.

Obama ramped up the war this year, sending tens of thousands more troops. Casualties are running at their highest levels since 2001. The U.S. death toll in July was 66, setting a monthly record; to date, about 2,000 NATO troops have died in the conflict, including more than 1,220 American service men and women.

There's plenty of frustration at the White House and in the U.S. Congress. In August, when Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Kabul, he bluntly stated that if the Karzai government didn't clean up corruption, it was going to be hard "to look American families in the eye and say, 'Hey that's something worth dying for.' "

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is banking on his plan to protect heavily populated areas, rout the Taliban from their strongholds and rush in better governance and development aid to win the Afghans' loyalty away from the Taliban.

"We're still fighting the fight," U.S. Army Capt. Nick Stout, a company commander with the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, said in Senjeray, capital of Zhari district northeast of Kandahar city.

"It kind of begs the question: What is it? What's the answer?" Stout, 27, said.

Afghan war

View interactive coverage about the 9-year Afghanistan war that showcases photos, video and analysis by Associated Press correspondents at links.tampabay.com.

U.S. apologizes for attack

The U.S. apologized Wednesday for a Sept. 30 helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers at an outpost near the Afghan border, saying American pilots mistook the soldiers for insurgents they were pursuing. The apology, which came after a joint investigation, could pave the way for Pakistan to reopen a key border crossing NATO uses to ship goods into landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistan closed the crossing to NATO supply convoys in an apparent reaction to the incident. Suspected militants have taken advantage of the impasse to launch attacks against stranded or rerouted trucks, including two Wednesday in which gunmen torched at least 55 fuel tankers and killed a driver. "We extend our deepest apology to Pakistan and the families of the Frontier Scouts who were killed and injured," said Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

Talks with Taliban: Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government on Wednesday denied reports that secret high-level talks with the Taliban had begun. Karzai's deputy spokesman, Hamed Elmi, said Wednesday there were "no contacts on the high levels" between the government and the Taliban, but acknowledged that indirect lower-level talks had been taking place. The president last week named a 70-member "peace council" tasked with overseeing any formal negotiations.

Blasts kill NINE: Roadside bombs killed nine people, including five children, in Kandahar, and NATO and Afghan forces reported killing 22 militants.

Times wires

Uncertainty over U.S. plans as Afghan war enters 10th year 10/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 7, 2010 12:17am]

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