KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — As the U.S. Black Hawk helicopter skimmed low over the desert, the signs of approaching spring were everywhere: melting frost in the hollows, the first shoots of green in the nearby fields, shrinking snowcaps on distant peaks.
In coming weeks, winter will loosen its grip on Afghanistan. Senior NATO generals insist that their troops are well positioned to confront the Taliban offensive that is expected to follow.
But some analysts, diplomats and other observers think the Western alliance, and the Afghan government it supports, has failed to use winter's relative lull in fighting to seize the initiative in advance of a new battle with the insurgents.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's forces in the south are being bolstered, but the influx of about 3,000 additional troops is privately described by field commanders as both tardy and considerably smaller than what they had hoped for.
The reinforcements will come almost exclusively from the United States and Britain; troop commitments by other alliance members have failed to materialize.
In some key districts, Taliban militants have reinfiltrated areas they were driven from months ago. Even before the start of any large-scale offensive, the insurgents are demonstrating an ability to capture territory, including their brazen seizure of the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province this month.
With Western troop levels at their highest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, including a record 26,000 U.S. soldiers, senior NATO officials in Kabul, the capital, described the insurgents as scattered and demoralized after defeats last year -- the bloodiest year of the conflict, with about 4,000 people killed.
The Taliban harbored ambitions of seizing Kandahar, the movement's onetime stronghold, but were blocked in that drive last autumn, though fighting came within 10 miles of the city.
"2006 was a year of Taliban failure," said British Gen. David Richards, who turned over command of NATO forces to U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill this month. "The Taliban did not achieve a single objective.... We proved that NATO can and will defeat the Taliban militarily."
But commanders of remote coalition outposts that have come under frequent hit-and-run attacks this winter describe a resourceful and determined foe they think will be back in force to fight again.
"They're hard-core -- very determined, very disciplined. They know the ground and they know how to fight, and they know how to adapt to changing conditions," said Canadian army Capt. Piers Pappin, whose mud-walled, thatched-roof outpost in the desert west of Kandahar was repeatedly attacked by bands of insurgents, even during the supposed winter lull.
Insurgent commandants have boasted that in coming months they will step up the use of crude yet lethal tactics such as suicide and roadside bombings, with which they can counter NATO troops' vastly superior firepower.
Suicide attacks increased fivefold in 2006, and the use of remotely detonated devices nearly doubled from the previous year, according to U.S. military figures.
'The call of extremists'
In Afghanistan's impoverished south, which is expected to be the focal point of fighting in the spring and summer, the slow pace of reconstruction has hurt allied military efforts to build the trust of villagers.
"While the growing insurgency is attracting increasing attention, long-term efforts to build the solid governmental institutions a stable Afghanistan requires are faltering," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report released at the end of January. As a result, "disillusioned, disenfranchised Afghans are ... responding to the call of extremists."
Aid groups and nongovernmental organizations have characterized the reconstruction effort as falling far short of the targets set a year ago by Western nations and the Afghan government.
"So much could have been done over the winter to make these people's lives better," said Norine MacDonald, who works in Kandahar province in village outreach programs sponsored by the nonprofit Senlis Council. "Instead, their situation is getting worse all the time."
Heading into the next round of fighting, the dubious efficacy of the Afghan army is also a growing cause for concern. Coalition goals call for the force to expand to 80,000 troops by next year, but at this point, struggling with a high desertion rate, it is fielding about 20,000.
Senior Western military officials put a positive face on the progress made in arming and training the force. But field-level allied officers who work closely with the Afghan troops privately predict that it will take many years to shape them into a professional army capable of confronting the insurgents on their own.