Few ever dared dream that Afghanistan, five years after US forces toppled the Taliban, would be Utopia.
But few, also, would have predicted that chronic weak governance, worsening security, and a resurgent Taliban would prompt senior US officials to warn against allowing Afghanistan to collapse again into a "failed state."
The metric for success has changed repeatedly for Afghans, whose high hopes – buoyed in late 2001 by unprecedented promises of Western support – have been repeatedly deflated.
Many feel a familiar foreboding, akin to the disintegration at the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, which led to years of civil war – and, finally, to more stable Taliban rule.
"My biggest worry is not the Taliban ... but the degree of cooperation of the population with the Taliban," says Homayoun Shah Assefy, a former presidential candidate and strong critic.
"In Maoist terms, they are swimming like fish in a friendly sea.... The gap between the government and the people is widening," says Mr. Assefy. "It's never too late to do good things, but we are moving toward a dangerous situation that is getting worse, not better."
Opium production has soared by nearly half in the past year, to 92 percent of world supply – most significantly in Taliban-heavy provinces of the south, where, many believe, it may help finance the militants. Army and police forces remain weak, and billions in rebuilding have yet to bring steady electricity even to Kabul.
President Hamid Karzai has said that his government, widely perceived among Afghans to be mired in corruption, could not resist a day without 38,000 US and NATO troops there. "The system is not working," says Assefy. "It can't defend itself."
Reversing that trend is proving difficult years after the White House called its efforts a success story. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that Afghanistan must not be abandoned again, as it was after Soviet withdrawal.
"[I]f we allow that kind of vacuum, if you allow a failed state in that strategic location, you will pay for it," said Ms. Rice. "If Afghanistan does not complete its democratic evolution and become a stable state, it's going to come back to haunt us."
But such an evolution has hardly begun, and is endangered – as attacks mount against schools, police stations, and government offices – by spreading Taliban influence. NATO forces, launching what they say is a new hearts-and-minds strategy, have battled for two weeks in the south, and claim to have killed more than 500 insurgents.
"There are two realities in competition: a political reality, of problematic but growing democracy; and a security reality, of the encroaching Taliban and insecurity, and it's like a race between them," says an American analyst in Kabul.
"The fundamental principle of politics is delivering services," says the analyst, ticking off problems from open sewers to ineffective parliament to warlordism – that have undermined public faith. "Donors have missed a really important point here: "If Karzai can't deliver services, then democracy can't function."
"The state has already failed," adds the analyst, noting that large swaths of the country are not under Kabul's control. "A few years ago, people gave Afghanistan a 50-50 chance. Now it is maybe 20-80, against Afghanistan making it."
Now, NATO forces are launching a new strategy in the south. Poland agreed Thursday to send 1,000 more soldiers in February, to the east, but the promise falls short of NATO requests this week for 2,500 more troops immediately to form a reserve force on the southern battlefield.
"The metric of success is: Do [people] feel life is getting better? Are they visibly moving forward? We have to demonstrate ... to people we can do that," says NATO spokesman Mark Laity.
"Operation Medusa is not just a kinetic operation, but a holistic operation that includes people going home, reconstruction and development," says Mr. Laity. "The strategic victory will not come just from the military," he says, but from aid and leadership "so people will have faith in the government and choose to support you."
US and British forces in Iraq have sometimes attempted to blend military force with the benefits of governance, to defeat insurgents, often with only temporary results. But that template has yet to be widely tested here, where initial contingents of the International Security Assistance Force didn't deploy outside of Kabul for 18 months.
The result of such "economy of force," military officers here now admit, was a vacuum that complicated government control. NATO forces in the south have been pushed to 10,000 from 4,000 this year; in Helmand Province, 100 Special Forces troops now have nearly 5,000 British troops on the ground.
"We are looking for that psychological ... effect that won't make it easy for the Taliban to crawl in at night and recruit $5-a-day foot soldiers," says NATO military spokesman Maj. Luke Knittig. Up to "70 percent perhaps [of Afghans] that just want to make sure they are on the winning side, and you want to win them over."
But that won't be easy. This year, 173 have died from suicide bombings. And many Afghans and analysts wonder, too, why such strategies were not used in 2002, a time of broad global support.
"What is very distressing is ... the failure to understand the lessons of the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s – they've supported the same type of people, even the same people – that made possible the triumph of the Taliban in 1996," says Francesc Vendrell, the EU envoy to Afghanistan. "The lessons are being learned, but it's a bit late. What was easily accomplishable in 2003 and 2004 is much more difficult now."