ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — As the U.S.-led coalition launches its most critical military operation of the nine-year war in Afghanistan, doubts are growing about whether the United States and its allies can contain the surging Taliban-led insurgency and prevent the country from reverting to an al Qaida sanctuary or erupting in civil war.
The operation aims to secure Kandahar, the financial, trade and political hub of southern Afghanistan and the seat of Taliban rule of Afghanistan until the 2001 U.S. invasion. Kandahar is the cultural and spiritual center of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group from which the Taliban are drawn almost exclusively.
U.S. and Afghan troops already have made the first moves to flush the Taliban from their strongholds in the lush Arghandab Valley and other districts around the second-largest Afghan city, but a host of problems plague the long-delayed initiative and the larger U.S.-led war effort.
U.S. troops are fanning out across the city of Kandahar to train Afghan police as part of a counter-insurgency plan refined by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the newly named commander of all allied forces, that will focus more on creating a respected government instead of routing insurgents inside the city.
U.S. casualties are averaging two deaths per day, the highest since the beginning of the war, and U.S. troops suffered their highest monthly death toll of the war in July, with 63 Americans killed.
A Gallup poll published earlier this month found that 60 percent of Americans think things are going badly. That was before the massive leak of secret U.S. military reports on WikiLeaks, which drove home what an uphill struggle Afghanistan has been.
Opposition to the war is growing, especially within President Obama's Democratic Party, amid a slow economic recovery and surging federal deficit. On July 27, 102 Democrats in the House of Representatives, all facing re-election in November, voted unsuccessfully to kill $33 billion in emergency war funding.
With mixed signals from Congress and Obama about how long U.S. troops will remain, Afghan leaders say they're uncertain of U.S. intentions.
On the ground, in the face of a determined Taliban assassination campaign, the Afghan government's performance is unlikely to improve. Despite concerted diplomacy and the promise of an enormous new U.S. aid package, the Obama administration can't persuade Pakistan to close down the Afghan insurgent sanctuaries that border Afghanistan.
Failure in Kandahar could doom the U.S.-led counterinsurgency operation.
"It is from Kandahar that the Taliban attempt to control the hearts and minds of the Afghan people," said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June. "It is my belief that should they go unchallenged there and in the surrounding areas, they will feel equally unchallenged elsewhere.
"As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan," he said.
A major obstacle in Kandahar — and across Afghanistan — is a lack of competent and honest administrators and police who can win the loyalty of the city's estimated 800,000 people and turn them against local warlords and the insurgents.
To deter Kandaharis from cooperating with the U.S.-led operation, Taliban hit squads are killing an average of one person a day, many of them local officials. The insurgents have attacked NATO convoys, targeted police stations and bombed Western aid groups.
With summer advancing and the dawn-to-dusk Muslim fasting month of Ramadan looming, Western strategists are lowering expectations for a decisive turnaround before year's end from what's been dubbed Operation Hamkari, or "cooperation" in the Dari language.
"Hamkari is not something you can do for four or five months and stop," said a second senior Western official based in Kandahar who asked not to be identified so he could be more candid.
If all goes as planned, Afghan and American forces hope to control most of the Arghandab Valley by the start of Ramadan next week.
Western strategists are still searching for a definition of success in a battle that they've long argued should be judged more for its ability to install a respected local government and less for how many militants it kills.
"Everyone is asking what success is going to look like — and no one knows," said Cathy Dunlap of the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team, a group of outside consultants advising Petraeus.
The U.S.-Afghan military surge is visible everywhere, with convoys rumbling through the province with increasing regularity. American and Afghan forces are setting up a new ring of checkpoints to choke the flow of Taliban fighters, and a surge of civilian strategists into Kandahar city has created a new battalion of experts focused on supporting U.S.-backed politicians.
Western generals are doing all they can to let their Afghan counterparts steer the operation. They consider the fight the latest test for Afghan security forces that remain bedeviled by high illiteracy rates, drug use and corruption.
Yet violence is raging at an unprecedented level as the Taliban step up attacks on civilians, massive corruption persists, and progress training competent Afghan security forces is fitful.
A report released Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee said that Afghanistan's illicit drug trade generates $2.8 billion annually and has become a primary source of financing for the insurgency.