US soldiers hold a position in Afghanistan
US soldiers hold a position in Afghanistan

In early 2009, Taliban insurgents controlled most of southern Afghanistan as well as the country's lucrative drug trade.

The U.S.-led coalition targeted suspected militant positions with increased air strikes.

Deadly cost

But the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross Pierre Kraehenbuhl said this strategy came with a deadly cost.

"The conflict is intensifying, is affecting wider parts of Afghanistan, civilian casualties are significantly higher in numbers than a year ago," he noted.

The air strikes caused a public backlash as reports of civilian casualties rose.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said civilian deaths were a main source of instability in his country.

In response, the U.S. and its NATO allies tightened the rules of engagement to limit civilian casualties.

Cautious approach

Washington's top military commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, tells VOA that using more caution when launching attacks on militants will be better for the coalition in the long run.

"Every time you kill an Afghan civilian - man, woman or child - you have a strategic failure," he explained.  "And you can pile up all these tactical success, but you're also piling up strategic failure, and eventually, your mission fails."

New strategy

In late March, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new focus on Afghanistan.

US President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama

"For three years, our commanders have been clear about the resources they need for training. Those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq," explained President Obama.  "Now, that will change."

Mr. Obama ordered thousands of more U.S. troops to the country.  Later on, he also changed the top military leadership there to U.S. General Stanley McChrystal with the explicit order to minimize civilian casualties.

As Afghanistan's security situation worsened, the country's political stability continued to crumble.  President Karzai's term was scheduled to end in May, but the Afghan government delayed the vote until the end of August in hopes that the security situation would improve.

Insurgency intensifies

The Taliban intensified its insurgency in an effort to disrupt the presidential election.  But on August 20, millions of Afghans went to the polls despite the violence.

In the months that followed, international election observers declared that widespread fraud had marred the vote, with most of it benefiting President Karzai.  Afghan officials called for a runoff between Mr. Karzai and his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

But Abdullah withdrew just days before the election, saying he did not think the vote would be fair.  In early November, Afghan election officials declared Mr. Karzai the winner by default.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Deadliest year

Since the fall of the Taliban eight years ago, 2009 has been the deadliest year for international forces in Afghanistan.  President Karzai says he hopes that by the end of his new five-year term, Afghan forces will lead all security operations in the country.

Following Mr. Karzai's declaration, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and requested that NATO countries also send more troops.

"Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," said President Obama.

Corruption - big problem

Kabul-based political analyst Akmal Dawi says corruption in Afghanistan's government, and the lack of resources and training for its forces, will require the coalition to stay longer.

"To be realistic in terms of the challenges this country has been facing, 10 to 15 years will be a realistic timeframe for Afghanistan to defend itself without the international support," he noted.

How long will US remain?

And President Karzai says his country will not be able to sustain its forces alone for another 15 to 20 years.

"We hope that the international community, in particular the United States as our first ally will help Afghanistan to reach the ability in terms of its economic ability as well eventually to sustain the force that would protect Afghanistan with the right numbers and the right equipment," said President Karzai.
Mr. Karzai has vowed to more effectively combat corruption in the coming year and has started investigations into a number of government officials.

Upcoming elections

But as Afghans prepare to vote in parliamentary elections in 2010, some observers are concerned that this poll could be more costly and convoluted than the presidential election.  Another fear is that Afghans simply will not go to the polls for fear of Taliban retribution or just general apathy.

But as the death tolls for civilians and troops in the country continue to rise, analysts say the international community and Afghanistan cannot afford to be apathetic.