FRAUDULENT elections, attacks on UN officials in Kabul, and a US administration seemingly reluctant to fulfil its chosen general's requests for yet more troops; observers may be forgiven for thinking that Afghanistan is on track to become another Vietnam.
That, however, would be misreading the situation. Under General Stanley McCrystal, the International Security Assistance Force is finally developing a strategy that promises to bring success. While the Taliban is far from defeated, important aspects of the Afghan situation work in the favour of the West.
Afghanistan is not yet a functioning state, but it is also easy to overstate the security problems there. In a country with roughly the same population as Iraq, daily attacks are still only a fraction of those in Iraq in 2006-07.
Despite the odd high-profile attack, main economic and population centres such as Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif or Herat are essentially safe for foreigners and the local population. Anti-government forces have significantly increased their reach in recent years, but the Taliban is much less unified than that label suggests. Their influence remains localised and dependent on ethnic, historical and political conditions, which can differ from province to province and village to village.
The hostile forces in the valleys of Nuristan and Kunar provinces are only temporary coalitions between local villagers, timber barons, the Haqqani network and al-Qa'ida foreign fighters.
ISAF is now withdrawing its permanent presence from these marginal areas, where it is clearly not wanted.
In contrast, insurgents in the Greater Paktia area in the southeast are dominated by the Haqqani network, which works in loose coalition with al-Qa'ida. Traditional tribal structures remain strong, which presents opportunities and constraints to both insurgents and coalition forces. While violence is persistent, it is at a much lower level than in Helmand or Kandahar.
Insurgents in the south, and in Pashtun pockets in the north, are more centrally directed by the Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura.
It continues to have national ambitions, and operates a shadow government in areas under its control. The heaviest resistance in this region was encountered in Helmand, but the centre of gravity is Kandahar city.
ISAF forces are only thinly deployed to areas outside the city proper, which is controlled by the militias of the governor, brother of President Hamid Karzai, and Afghan National Security Forces. The Taliban strength in the city is unknown, but they are outnumbered by forces loyal to the government.
Dr Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University