No matter how many times I've visited the country, or been embedded with U.S. forces, or covered the lives of ordinary Afghans caught up in the almost 6-year-old war, I still cringe when asked – and I'm ALWAYS asked when I get back – 'How's things in Afghanistan?'' Invariably I pause for a few seconds, hoping to find the magic answer as I collect my thoughts. But there is no silver bullet: ''Good,'' I venture. ''And bad.''
In fact, if you were to list – as I often do after each trip – both the encouraging and disturbing developments in Afghanistan, or what is better now than, say, a year ago, I suspect your columns would be pretty much like mine: equal. And that holds true on ANY scale. Take Kabul, for instance. On the plus side, business is booming. 5-star hotels, shopping malls, modern glassy trade centers, electronics stores and expensive foreign cars jam the streets. Also, former enemies now seem to be working together. At a recent reception for the Ahmad Shah Masood Foundation, held at the relatively luxurious Serena Hotel in central Kabul, the 'beautiful' people I saw tended to be former Mujihadeen generals and wily warlords. Those nice, smiling men sipping their black tea and chatting now were killing each other's militias 10 years ago.
But, say critics, Kabul's success is built on nothing but funny money: either from the billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance that never spread beyond the capital, or from war booty and drug money. And while there may be bubbles of peace here and there, overall, Kabul is too unsafe today for a foreign reporter to walk its streets without the kind of protection he would take into the streets of Baghdad. What about Afghanistan's progressive president, former Baltimore restaurateur Hamid Karzai? We, in the West, tend to see him as a bastion of moderation, a leader who understands the value of bringing democracy to a nation that still lingers in a previous millennium. But many Afghans see Karzai as the failed leader of a failed state, rampant with corruption.
''This government and all of those in it are thinking only of themselves, '' says one outspoken critic, Dr. Wadi Safi of Kabul University. ''They don't know the nation, and they don't think they are accountable to the people because nobody punishes them.''
Now zoom out and take in the bigger picture…those U.S. forces – some 10,000 - that operate in the Eastern part of the country, along the border with Pakistan. They say that, by any measure of success, they are winning the war there. What WAS the Taliban's backyard is now theirs. Local economies are thriving as U.S. commanders fund important infrastructure and health projects – a new road, a bridge, a school - that improve lives in areas where Americans dared not tread just a year ago. Local tips on insurgent activity and local cooperation are up; enemy attacks are down. It's a counter-insurgency model that U.S. Centcom Commander Admiral William Fallon is keen to use elsewhere. He choppered into Kunar province during our embed to personally grasp that model and spoke to me of its merits in a rich green valley that, only months before, had been a hot zone for Taliban attacks.
''Frankly, we were focused on other places, like Iraq, but now we're back in it,'' he said. ''I see Afghans who welcome us and want to work with us, and I think this is exactly what we want to do.'' And, in the southern provinces, after a 4-year power vacuum, a 35,000-strong NATO force is now fighting ITS war against the Taliban. And it's made huge gains since the spring, decimating whole companies of militants who dare go toe-to-toe with the U.S.-led troops. Just days before our embed ended, there was news that the Taliban's most dreaded – and efficient – commander, Mullah Dadullah, had been killed in an intelligence-driven attack by U.S. and Afghan forces in the volatile Helmand province.
But all of this GOOD military news has a political flip side. U.S. forces may be winning the war, but not necessarily the people needed to sustain that battle. In many Afghan provinces, locals tend to mistrust their own government representatives even more than U.S. forces. But that equation is getting WORSE: as U.S. and NATO forces step up their attacks – including devastating air strikes – against Taliban fighters, hundreds of civilians have been killed in the crossfire as well. Now Afghans are DOUBLY angry: they see President Karzai as both ineffective AND too pro-U.S.
''Certainly militarily we are winning the war, '' says Afghanistan expert Dr Barnett Rubin. ''The question is whether we are building a political base, and that is very much in question…because the Afghan government is increasingly unpopular.''
So, how IS it going in Afghanistan? Are we winning or losing the war? Or the peace? I see no pat answer. No 10-second sound bite. We are winning some hearts, but losing other minds. We are bringing a sense of peace to parts of the country where we have soldiers at least, but the Taliban is still intimidating whole towns, elsewhere, with death threats posted on residential doors at night, with school burnings, ambushes and roadside bombs. We have defeated Taliban and al-Qaida militants in dozens upon dozens of battles this year, but their suicide bombers keep on coming – and exploding – from inside the Pakistan border, where they are trained and equipped.
Some have called this 'reaching a tipping point'. Perhaps that's the best answer: Afghanistan IS balanced between good and bad, war and peace, winning and losing. Some days, in some ways, look very positive indeed. But winning in Afghanistan still appears no better than a 50-50 bet. It could go either way. There are still too many reasons why Afghans could see a low-burn guerilla war that kills thousands of civilians – as well as several hundred American and allied soldiers - every year…for years to come.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent is based in London who has just returned from an extended assignment in Afghanistan.