KABUL, Afghanistan — After the most violent winter since U.S. soldiers arrived in Afghanistan, the spring thaw has come, ushering in a new "fighting season" in which, intelligence suggests, the Taliban leadership believes they will storm back into their former strongholds in the south and reverse the much-trumpeted gains of U.S.-led coalition forces.
Whether they can do it will test how effective the U.S. surge of troops last year has been in turning the tide of a 10-year losing campaign.
Last week, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who leads the International Security Assistance Force, told Congress that progress has been so good that the Obama administration would be able to begin drawing down its surge troops this summer.
Critics aren't nearly so optimistic. They say ISAF is trying to spin its way to success by cherry-picking statistics and creating fleeting showcases with unsustainable numbers of troops deployed in a few selected places in the south.
Every nationwide indicator shows that security has never been so bad, including those compiled by the United Nations and the Red Cross. The Afghan government itself is among those questioning ISAF's strategy. President Hamid Karzai declared this month that international troops must "stop their operations in our land".
After suddenly recognizing that the war was failing and Afghanistan hurtling towards chaos, the Obama administration over the past two years has invested heavily here. The number of American troops has more than doubled, to 100,000, and U.S. spending on them has more than tripled — from $29 billion in 2008 to a projected $101 billion this year. The U.S.-led military offensive has been massive, with some 66,000 coalition troops saturating the insurgent heartland in the south, mainly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
In the next few weeks, the Taliban will begin to emerge from their winter retreats as the weather warms and reignite their bloody campaign in full force.
"They (the Taliban's top leadership) are confident in their ability to reclaim territory," said a Western intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They fully acknowledge they've lost ground in Kandahar and Helmand, but they think it will be an easy recapture."
This winter, in fact, the Taliban didn't provide the usual respite.
In January and February, insurgent attacks were up 66 percent compared with a year earlier, running at a rate of more than 300 per week, according to tally kept by Indicium Consulting, an independent security consultant.
The insurgency has spread to new areas, including previously peaceful parts of the west and north. It has adopted new tactics, morphing from guerrilla warfare to terrorism.
A tally by another research organization, the Afghanistan NGO Safety office, shows similar results — a 64 percent increase in insurgent attacks during 2010 from a daily average of 33 attacks in 2009.
The U.S. focus on touting the results of Helmand and Kandahar misses the bigger picture, critics say: Six of the 10 provinces in ISAF's northern command area saw attacks at least double in the past year. Provinces that previously had been considered relatively safe, such as Nangarhar in the east and Logar in the center, saw a sharp deterioration in security. Of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, 29 saw rising insurgent attacks in 2010.
Nic Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, said that the international coalition's emphasis on the bright spots seems intended to persuade Americans at home that the Obama strategy is succeeding so that a drawdown starting in July is justified.
"The over-riding objective is the exit," he said. "By thin-slicing the data, using a region by region approach, you can show something that's very specific and localized. But the Taliban are fighting a national campaign."
Last year, 2,777 civilians were killed in the conflict, an increase of 15 percent, according to the United Nations.
The number killed accidently by coalition forces fell sharply and amounted to 16 percent of the total. But that's small comfort to Afghans, who experienced rising bloodshed, whatever the source.
Last year also saw a record number of deaths among coalition troops, 711, including 499 Americans, according to the iCasualties website.
The Taliban also have doubled the number of assassinations aimed at people cooperating with the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition — 462 civilians were killed in such attacks last year, the U.N. found. The victims ranged from high-ranking officials to doctors and teachers.
Tellingly, the execution rampage spiked in the two provinces where ISAF has deployed the most troops, with a 248 percent increase in Kandahar and a 588 percent jump in Helmand, showing that the Taliban were able to operate in the midst of massive coalition presence.
"2010 was the bloodiest year. This is going to be another bloody year. How long are we going to talk about bloody years?" said Shaida Mohammad Abdali, the deputy national security adviser. "We have gone backwards. Year by year, security is getting worse. If we are losing hundreds of people per month, is this security?"
Last month, Robert Watkins, the outgoing deputy chief of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, in an apparent unguarded moment, told reporters in Geneva that "security in the country is at its lowest point" since the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001. terrorist attacks pushed the Taliban from power.
Last week, the Red Cross said that, for ordinary Afghans caught up in the middle of the conflict, it was an "untenable situation."
It's difficult to reconcile those judgments with the ISAF's view of an improving security scenario.
"The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas," Petraeus told a Senate committee hearing last week. "However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible."
There is little doubt that where U.S. troops have been heavily deployed, such as the town of Marjah in Helmand province, and around Kandahar city — including the district of Zhari, where the Taliban movement has born — they have largely pushed the insurgents out.
But the improvement has required a massive increase in the number of coalition soldiers deployed. In the south, focused on Kandahar and Helmand provinces, coalition numbers increased to 66,000 in January from 28,000 two years earlier.
Afghanistan's east, the second-most violent part of the country, has seen a similar increase, to 41,000 from 25,000.
Those jumps in deployment have been accompanied by a huge rise in special operations raids that target midlevel Taliban commanders, primarily at night: a six-fold increase since summer 2009. In the 90-day period ending Feb. 11, for instance, there were 1,826 such raids, ISAF says. They resulted in the killing or capturing of 363 insurgent leaders and 2,698 insurgent foot soldiers.
Coalition and Afghan troops are also capturing more weapons caches — 450 such discoveries in February, more than three times what they nabbed in the same month a year earlier.
That augurs well for the fighting season, ISAF contends. When the Taliban return to fight, they'll find their stores of weapons gone.
For ISAF, rising violence is actually an indicator of success, showing they are pushing into new areas, and the terrorist tactics — assassinations and suicide bombings — increasingly adopted by the Taliban are a sign of "desperation."
"In order to drive out insurgents, you'll initially see insurgents react violently as we move forces in. They won't go away peacefully," said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, ISAF's outgoing deputy chief of staff for communication.
Worries that the campaign can't be duplicated are misplaced, Smith said.
"There aren't many areas like Marjah, where the Taliban ran everything," Smith said. "We don't need to repeat Marjah," which involved a 7,500-strong U.S.-led assault force and where 2,000 Marines are still deployed.
Organizations such as the Red Cross and U.N. perceive a decrease in security because the old local Taliban commanders that used to give them safe passage through a district have been captured and killed, replaced by younger and more radical Taliban who aren't prepared to allow even humanitarian groups to work in their area, the Western intelligence official said.
"It feels worse for the U.N. or the Red Cross because they used to be able to secure freedom of movement. They used to be able to talk to the local (Taliban) commanders," the intelligence official said.
Those with long experience in Afghanistan feel that they've heard optimism many times from the international coalition, yet more Afghans and more foreign troops have been killed every year since 2005. As the snow melts, it will become clear in the coming months whether things really are different in 2011.
"Every year is a crucial year. Every year ISAF announces that they are now really seeing success, and every year we're told it will get worse before it gets better," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization, who's been in Kabul since 2004. "This is very much a war of perceptions. The military always feels they are so close to making a difference, but they just need a bit more time."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.