Taliban attacks in Afghanistan rose sharply this year, underscoring the difficulty faced by the Afghan government and coalition forces trying to stamp out the persistent and deadly insurgency.  But just how serious a threat does the Taliban pose to the wobbly government of President Hamid Karzai, who is up for re-election next year.  VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas looks at the situation in Afghanistan.

In a recent speech, the European Union's outgoing special representative to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, said conditions there are the worst since 2001, when a U.S.-backed force deposed the Taliban government.

New York University Professor Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan, agrees.  He says Afghans are beginning to despair about whether the U.S. and NATO troop presence will make a difference in their lives.

"Right now is the time when there is the least hope since the Taliban were overthrown, the worst security, and the least belief by Afghans that actually this intervention is going to bring them a better future," said Rubin.

An Afghan expert at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, Ken Katzman, agrees the security situation is bad.

"Everybody is agreed there is more violence, which started in mid-2006," he said. "No one is quite certain why it was so much less violent from 2001 until 2006.  Maybe the Taliban had to regroup.  Maybe they got their networks established in Pakistan and then they were able to make somewhat of a comeback starting in 2006.  We are still seeing their effects."

But, Katzman adds, the news is not all gloomy.  He says despite the security situation, there are signs of progress, particularly on the economic front.

"But we are seeing a tremendous amount of, at least, economic progress elsewhere - in the west, in the north, and even Regional Command-South, Helmand province," said Katzman.

Once thought to be effectively finished off, the Taliban-led insurgency is back in action, attacking coalition forces from safe havens across the border in Pakistan. 

The top-ranking U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said last week the situation is difficult but still salvageable. "I am not convinced we are winning it in Afghanistan. I am convinced we can," he said.

Barnett Rubin says the Taliban does not pose any immediate direct threat to the government of President Hamid Karzai. 

"The Taliban are not trying to militarily defeat the United States and NATO and march into Kabul," he said. "What they are doing is consolidating their control over much of the country, showing the people that things are moving in their direction."  

"And, at the same time, one of the purposes of spectacular terrorist acts and attacks in the capital in particular - of which I expect to see more in the next couple of months - is to also illustrate to the international community that they [the Taliban] are winning and that it is pointless to continue," he continued.

Rubin adds the security threat is compounded by ineffective governance and rampant corruption. "As long as the international forces are there and the money is flowing, the government will probably not collapse or disappear," he said.

"But it could very well become increasingly corrupt and increasingly impotent.  One of the effects of the growing expectation that the momentum is going in the direction of the Taliban is also an increase in corruption because people do not see any rational reason to obey rules or plan for a long-term future," he added.

The United Nations says civilian deaths from both Taliban attacks and airstrikes by U.S. and NATO forces have risen by 40 percent in the past year. The United States denies targeting civilians, and says any noncombatant deaths are inadvertent. 

Nevertheless, analysts say, the civilian casualties are sowing bad feeling toward the United States and NATO forces, and putting President Karzai, a staunch U.S. ally, in an awkward position.