Afghanistan: Weren't we meant to be winning by now?

The country has little chance of being ready for the withdrawal of Nato forces

Twelve months ago, Marjah was a ghost town, deep in rural Helmand province and deep in the grip of the Taliban. The bazaar was closed and those who could run had fled; the rest cowered in their homes.

It was never going to be easy to take from the Taliban. More than 120 Taliban and at least 60 coalition and Afghan troops paid the price with their lives. Today, the Afghan national flag flies over the town, the schools are open and the opium trade is under attack. Marjah is crawling back to something approaching normality.

"Security is good now. Life is better," Gul Ahmed, a wheat farmer, told the Kansas City Star. "Bad people like the Taliban cannot come here now. They took money from us. They took food from us. They forced us to go with them to other provinces to fight."

Successive military surges have pushed the Taliban out of towns like this across Afghanistan. If the coalition partners are to meet their target of withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, they must maintain their momentum – or at least hold the ground they have gained. At a time when President Obama talks bullishly about beginning to reduce the number of troops, even standing still is an ordeal. More than 7,000 Nato and Afghan troops took part in the battle of Marjah a year ago; today, some 2,000 US marines remain.

"If the marines left," said Sidar Mohammad, who owns a bakery in Marjah's Loy Chareh market, "the Taliban would be back in two weeks."

The peace that holds in parts of Afghanistan is fragile. As Marjah quietly marked a year of cautious hope, further north a group of Nato soldiers were fired on while they were working on a vehicle. One German soldier and eight more were wounded. Such casualties are not unusual, but the fact that it was mounted by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform – and that it happened inside a heavily guarded compound – highlighted the continuing challenge of pacifying Afghanistan in time to make an honourable exit within three years.

The military surge last summer, prefaced by the battle of Marjah, was expected to result in heavy casualties, and 2010 duly proved to be the bloodiest year for coalition forces since the start of the conflict in 2001. The offensive was also supposed to be followed by a period of relative calm and low casualties. It hasn't.

On Monday, Lance Corporal Kyle Cleet Marshall, from 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, became the 357th UK fatality since operations began in Afghanistan almost a decade ago. The UK lost 103 service personnel in Afghanistan in 2010 and a further nine so far this year.

A UK government "progress report" now reveals that coalition troops are facing their most violent winter ever as the number of attacks and arms seizures soars to an all-time high. The toll of "violent incidents" already stands at 700 a month and expected to get worse.

The latest monthly progress report from the Foreign Office also warns that the amount of enemy weapons discovered by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and local officials has multiplied to the point where caches are being discovered at a rate of almost three a day. The figure is nearly three times the rate recorded a year ago and twice the rate from the summer months, when the intensity of battle and security incidents is traditionally at its height. The report added: "In spring 2011 we expect levels of insurgent activity to rise again and we must be prepared to meet this. As we approach the launch of the transition process it becomes more important that it is the [Afghan police] who are taking the lead in meeting this threat."

Nato's exit strategy was confirmed at the Lisbon conference only three months ago but already, with high levels of violence and stubborn concerns over the capabilities of President Hamid Karzai, the retreat from Afghanistan could be an ignominious one. The leadership of the operation was cast into doubt last week when it was suggested that General David Petraeus was poised to quit his post as US commander in Afghanistan. The early departure of the general, who was treated for prostate cancer in 2009, would be seen as a vote of no confidence in the US strategy. But, while criticising the "sensational speculation" about General Petraeus's future, the Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell could not guarantee that he would be in it for the long haul. "I can assure you General Petraeus is not quitting as ISAF commander," Mr Morrell said, "but nor does he plan to stay in Afghanistan for ever."

Faheem Haider, the principal analyst on Afghan politics at the Foreign Policy Association, a US think tank, warns that "rampant and endemic corruption ... has now made Afghanistan a personal fiefdom for a handful of war lords and kingmakers".

He added: "The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is far worse than we have been led to believe; indeed, the situation is far worse than even our best assessments for the coming three years might suggest."

The "civilian surge", aimed at building a functioning government in Kabul, has also stuttered – largely due to political and economic corruption, and dwindling confidence in Mr Karzai's commitment to democracy. After claims that earlier polls had been marred by fraud, the beleaguered President sparked a constitutional crisis when he challenged unfavourable election results last September. He agreed to open the new parliament last month only under pressure.

Nevertheless, experts maintain that the strategy is heading in the right direction. Paul Miller, the director for Afghanistan in the US National Security Council under both George Bush and Barack Obama, said: "The pessimists are right to be worried about the rise of the Taliban insurgency and the weak rule of law, but they also tend to overstate the competence and scale of the insurgency." In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, he said: "Between 2001 and 2009, almost every indicator of human development showed measurable improvement."

But the list of improvements in health services, the infant mortality rate, school enrolment and literacy does not tell the whole story. Many of the advancements are patchy, confined to urban areas, beyond the areas under Taliban influence.

Similarly, the Afghan government reports the ranks of its army and police – the touchstone of the coalition exit strategy – have almost doubled to 266,000 in two years. However, the headline increase has been undermined by consistent revelations about the low quality of many recruits, corruption and high rates of defection.

The failings are emblematic of the wider criticisms of coalition policy: an acceptance of the need to plough resources into the fight, hindered by a fragile grasp of the nature of its enemy – or its allies; an inability to convince Afghanis of its good intentions; and an unwillingness to deal with corruption.

"Militarily, targets are being met," said Gareth Price of the Royal United Services Institute, "yet politically, things are still going wrong."

John Bolton, former US permanent representative to the UN, said: "Even when announcing a substantial increase in US forces in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban, [Mr Obama] avowed simultaneously his hope to begin withdrawing those forces in mid-2011. Such a clear signal of weakness only encourages the Taliban and al-Qa'ida to hold on until that point, when Obama could begin bringing troops home, perhaps even proclaiming 'mission accomplished'."