KABUL, Afghanistan -- Hamida Gulistani was getting ready to leave home for her office when she heard the crack of gunfire. What she saw as she peered through the steel gates of her house deepened her fears about the future of her country.
Her driver lay dead. Her neighbor was shouting that Gulistani's house was under attack. And the Afghan army and police weren't responding to her phone calls. As an elected provincial councilor, and thus a prime target for the Taliban, she feared her time was up.
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"I kept calling the police chief and other security forces, but by the time they arrived it was too late. The attackers took my car and drove away," said the 40-year-old human rights activist. She has since moved from her province of Ghazni to the relatively safer capital, Kabul.
Ghazni and neighboring Wardak province have become a hotbed of insurgent activity in the past year, mainly along the main highway which links Kabul to Kandahar in the south and runs through Gulistani's hometown. Dozens of abductions and killings are reported weekly on the highway, and Afghans are beginning to worry that the nascent Afghan National Security Forces taking over the defense of Afghanistan won't be up to the job.
Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, who runs the day-to-day coalition campaign in Afghanistan, says only a small stretch of the 1,200-mile road has been affected. Less than three months after the Afghan forces took over primary responsibility for national security from the U.S.-led coalition, Milley says he's sure they are capable of operating alone, carrying out large-scale operations around the country with little support from the U.S.-led coalition.
But while the Americans sound upbeat, there's a growing fear among Afghans about what happens if the Western umbrella folds up. The deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops is just 16 months away, and President Hamid Karzai is stalling on a deal to keep some of those troops here as backup.
"All the people who voted for me have many concerns for 2014," says Gulistani. "The people are so disappointed, hopeless for the future of Ghazni."
They fear a return to the chaos and civil war of the 1990s that gave rise to the Taliban, the arrival of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, and ultimately the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S.-led invasion.
There's skepticism about whether the Afghan forces can protect the presidential election set for next April -- the first without Karzai, who has governed Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion and is constitutionally barred from running again.
For Afghans who fear a Taliban resurgence, long-term security depends on a continued $8 billion a year in Western funding of the government and security forces, and on a deal to leave some foreign forces in place.
"If the bilateral security agreement is not signed, we know that we will not have the strong support of the international community ... after 2014," said Jawed Kohistani, an Afghan political and military analyst.
That deal is reportedly ready but Karzai is reluctant to sign lest nationalists accuse him of caving in to American demands. He says he is "not in a hurry" to sign and can leave it to his successor.
NATO and U.S. military officials want a decision by October so that they can plan, while U.S. President Barack Obama won't announce troop numbers until a deal is done.
Critics say Karzai's delays are stoking Afghan fears that the international community will abandon the country.
"What happens if the United States makes a decision to leave Afghanistan like they did in Iraq?" analyst Kohistani asked.
U.S. military and diplomatic officials insist there are great benefits to a BSA -- a bilateral security agreement.
It will "send a clear message first and foremost to the Afghan people and Afghan security forces and enhance their confidence," Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview. "I also think the BSA will send a message to the Taliban that they can't wait us out."
Although Obama is undecided about numbers, it is thought that about 9,000 U.S. troops would join about 6,000 from the U.S. allies. Currently about 100,000 troops from 48 countries are in Afghanistan, 60,000 of them American.
By the end of this year, the NATO force will be halved.
"I wish the White House were more clear about its intentions, but despite its hesitancy, there is little doubt in my mind that they want to keep funding and supporting Afghanistan" after 2014, including with U.S. forces and funding for the Afghan army and police, said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, an Afghan expert.
Military officials point out that the Afghan security forces have progressed as their ranks have grown ninefold in six years to about 352,000. They acknowledge more training will be needed, but "the Afghans are in the lead, every day, day in and day out. They are planning, coordinating and carrying out operations," said Milley, the U.S. commander. "They are defending their country and they are inflicting significant casualties on the enemy."
A recent operation in the east, for example, involved two army corps and police and commando units -- nearly 5,000 men taking to the field with heavy artillery and support from Afghan helicopters and gunships, said Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, commander of Afghanistan's 203rd Thunder Corps which ran the operation.
Repeated visits by The Associated Press to Afghan units around the country throughout the spring and summer show that they have made considerable progress in recent years, and in recent months have shown they can defeat insurgents in a head-to-head fight.
There have been some large insurgent actions during the so-called "fighting season" that lasts from March to the end of October. Milley said 3,000 of the 4,000 checkpoints run by Afghan forces around the country had been attacked at some point. The Afghans lost control of about 100 but recovered them with the army's help.
Afghan security forces are also taking heavy casualties this year -- 487 soldiers and 637 police killed since Jan. 1, according to an AP tally. The figure for coalition forces is 112 killed, 86 of them American, according to an AP count.
"We are working really hard to improve procedures to reduce casualties," Milley said, mostly by teaching casualty evacuation procedures and training Afghan forces to discover hidden bombs.
Units in the east such as the 203rd Corps, near the Pakistani border, are more integrated and fight with no help from the coalition. Some units in southern provinces such as Helmand seem to lack coordination and are not as effective on the battlefield, but they have not so far lost any significant territory to the Taliban.
"So far this spring and summer the Taliban haven't taken and held population centers or territory," said British Lt. Gen. John Lorimer, the deputy commander of coalition forces.
He said there was "no chance of them overthrowing the Afghan government." Afghan security forces, he said, "will be able tactically to secure the population."
It is doubtful that the Taliban will be able to take over the country, or even regain traditional strongholds in the east and the south, as long as Afghan forces have the funding to keep fighting after 2014. Many compare the situation to 1989, when the Soviet military withdrew a force the same size as the current NATO one. Afghan forces managed to keep control over the country until their funding stopped -- then collapsed in 1992 and the country slipped into civil war.
But the Taliban are also unlikely to give up, even as they negotiate their way into peace talks with the Afghan government. Instead, they are likely to intensify their campaign in the next fighting season.
"I think we're at a very critical time," said U.S. Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, who commands coalition forces in the east. "This is the first time that the Afghan security forces have been in the lead during the entire fighting season. And they believe they're winning, and I tend to agree with them."