"If you believe all the things you hear about Afghanistan, this ought to be real hot," Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East and Central Asia, said of eastern Afghanistan. "More than half the border is Pakistan, it's a rough area, historically it's been a hotbed of insurgent activity. It's remarkable in its improvement."
At the same time, violence has continued to rise in the south, which is controlled by a 11,700-soldier NATO force largely made up of the British, Canadian and Dutch forces. Britain saw 42 soldiers killed last year, almost all in southern Afghanistan, its highest annual fatality count of the war; Canada lost 31, close to the 36 from that country killed in 2006. American forces lost 117 troops in 2007, up from 98 in 2006, but U.S. forces are spread more widely across Afghanistan.
"Our guys in the east, under Gen. Rodriguez, are doing a terrific job. They've got the [counterinsurgency] thing down pat," Gates said. "But I think our allies over there, this is not something they have any experience with."
Some U.S. counterinsurgency experts have argued that the backsliding is not the fault of NATO forces alone.
Some have argued that an effective counterinsurgency campaign implemented by Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno and Zalmay Khalilzad, who were the U.S. commander in and ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, was largely abandoned by officials who came later.
Barno retired from the military and heads the Near East South Asia Center at the National Defense University. In an article in the influential Army journal Military Review last fall, he blamed both NATO and U.S. commanders for moving away from the counterinsurgency plan since 2006.
Barno accused NATO and U.S. forces of ignoring the cornerstone of a counterinsurgency campaign -- protecting the local population -- and said they instead focused on killing enemy forces.
"We had a fundamentally well-structured, integrated U.S. Embassy and U.S. military unified counterinsurgency campaign plan which we put in place in late '03 that took us all the way through about the middle of 2005," Barno said in an interview. "And then it was really, in many ways, changed very dramatically."
Currently serving American officers, however, have singled out non-U.S. NATO forces for the bulk of their criticism. Among the concerns is that NATO forces do not actively include Afghan troops in military operations.
As a result, local forces in the south are now less capable than those in the east, which operate very closely with their American counterparts.
"Every time you see our guys in the field, you don't have to look very far and you'll see them," said the senior U.S. officer involved in the Afghan campaign. "Getting the Brits to do this and the others is a little more of a problem."
In addition, U.S. military officials said NATO forces in the south are too quick to rely on high-caliber firepower, such as airstrikes, a practice which alienates the local population.
"The wide view there, which I hear from Americans, is that the NATO military forces are taking on a Soviet mentality," said one senior U.S. military veteran of Afghanistan. "They're staying in their bases in the south, they're doing very little patrolling, they're trying to avoid casualties, and they're using air power as a substitute for ground infantry operations, because they have so little ground infantry."
The European NATO official said, however, that alliance data show that all countries, including the U.S., use air power in similar amounts when their troops come in contact with enemy forces.
"Everyone is grateful for the Americans . . . but this kind of constant denigration of what other people are doing isn't helpful," the official said. "It also makes the situation look worse than it is."