The NATO alliance faces a huge test in a bid to secure southern Afghanistan as it takes over security operations there. Violence, illegal drug production and political corruption are exploding throughout the region and experts warn Afghanistan's march toward democracy could go fatally off track.
NATO will take over military operations in six key southern provinces from a U.S.-led coalition on Monday. The hand-over comes as Afghanistan faces its bloodiest year since the Taleban was ousted in 2001.
More than 1,700 people have been killed this year and the number of suicide attacks and militant raids is surging throughout the country. The south is seen as ground zero in the fight to stabilize Afghanistan. The area is the traditional stronghold of the hard-line Islamist Taleban, which took control of the country in the mid-1990s.
NATO spokesman Major Luke Knittig says the new operation is a critical test for the 57-year-old military alliance, which links the United States, Canada and most Western European nations.
"This is probably the toughest mission the alliance has ever embarked upon. Maybe not the largest, but certainly the most complex," he said.
The number of NATO troops in Afghanistan is expected to reach some 18,000 by mid-August, up from around 10,500.
In the south, NATO combat forces will nearly double in size to around 8,000 mostly British, Dutch and Canadian troops.
U.S. forces will continue to provide combat support for NATO in the south and continue their own hunt for terrorist leaders such as al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
It is the first time NATO will lead security operations in such a volatile part of the country.
The expansion is widely seen as the last hope for Western forces to help secure the country's fragile democracy, which is threatened not only by Taleban insurgents, but also by regional leaders who defy the elected Kabul government.
"If the south falls then the rest of the country becomes vulnerable, and because it was the Taleban heartland it's that much more important to prove that there is a new south and that there's going to be a policy of zero tolerance for the Taleban and other anti-government elements," said Samina Ahmed, a security analyst in Islamabad for the International Crisis Group.
Ahmed says the first test for NATO will be to secure the region's vulnerable cities and district capitals.
Afghan officials say even the largest commercial centers in the area remain open to attack and development projects throughout the region have been put on hold until security improves.
One challenge for NATO will be crippling the opium trade. Thousands of farmers in southern Afghanistan illegally grow opium poppies, used to make heroin that is smuggled overseas. There is evidence, security experts say, that the drug trade helps fund the Taleban militants and also contributes to widespread political corruption in the region.
NATO commanders say the alliance plans on staying for as long as it takes to secure the area.
But several regional experts say the Western forces must quickly show communities in the south that security is improving if they are to build support for the Kabul government.
Failure, the experts predict, could result in the country once again becoming a haven for international terrorists.