Afghanistan's fighting season will begin in full force by the end of this month as the trees bud and the last of the snows melt off the mountain tops _ and with it, a chance to measure the success of NATO efforts to turn back the Taliban.
The ferocity of the Taliban's widely expected spring offensive to regain lost territory and execute suicide attacks and assassinations will influence President Barack Obama's decision about how many of the nearly 100,000 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan can start going home in July.
The extent to which the Taliban return to the fight will also help determine whether the surge of more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops that Obama announced in December 2009 succeeded in arresting the insurgency.
The reinforcements have routed the Taliban from their strongholds, captured and killed mid- to upper-level leaders, uncovered and destroyed militants' weapons caches and demolished their compounds _ especially in southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the insurgency.
But the militants, who have shown their resiliency time and again, have taken the fight to other areas of country with high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. What's unknown is how strong the Taliban will prove to be as the fighting season gears up in what could be a defining year in the nearly decade-old war.
U.S. deaths are expected to climb, though the Americans have destroyed plenty of planted roadside bombs in the south over the past few months. Since the beginning of the war, 1,431 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, at least 77 of them so far this year.
The U.S.-led coalition, partnered with Afghan forces, did not pause its offensive against insurgents during the cold Afghan winter, when many militants took refuge across the border in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. Heavy rains also have slightly delayed the opium poppy season, with many Taliban expected to return to fighting after the crop is harvested later this month.
Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July but has stressed that the scale and pace will depend on conditions on the ground and the level of extremist violence.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, has said he will present Obama with various proposals. The initial withdrawal is expected to be modest, but it is politically significant as a mark of U.S. intention to begin shouldering less of the load in Afghanistan and bring all combat forces out by the end of 2014.
The United States has more than twice as many as troops in Afghanistan as the other allied nations combined. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned NATO foreign ministers on Thursday against bringing their own forces home too soon.
Clinton said the Taliban will be watching what the alliance does in the coming months and that speedy reductions will hurt the fragile security gains the alliance claims. The United States is worried that pressure will grow within the alliance to match U.S. withdrawals and answer rising discontent with the war in Europe.
"We need to worry less about how fast we can leave and more about how we can help the Afghan people build on the gains of the past 15 months," Clinton told her colleagues at a summit in Berlin.
She reaffirmed support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's desire to lure Taliban fighters back into society as long as they meet certain condition. But she said it was equally important to make clear that those who reject such overtures will pay the price.
"Those who choose violence must face relentless pressure," she said. "The Taliban need to know that they cannot wait us out."
Petraeus has predicted that the Taliban will try to carry out sensational attacks across the country, especially in Kabul, but said the Taliban's main focus will be clawing back whatever ground Afghan and foreign forces have taken following the U.S. surge.
"They are going to try to regain lost territory," Petraeus told The Associated Press recently. "They're going to try to regain momentum that has either been halted or reversed."
The Taliban also are hampered by a loss of supplies, shelter and weaponry in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand in the south. That's where the military has managed to retake and hold some of the territory it lost during the fallow years from 2003 to 2006 when the United States was busy fighting in Iraq.
Petraeus said the loss of territory means the Taliban start this season "from a very different point than from the previous fighting seasons of the past five years," without the network of stored weapons, bomb factories and safe houses that supported those campaigns.
More importantly, coalition forces believe they have managed to degrade the Taliban command structure.
According to NATO, from Feb. 8 to April 8, Special Operations Forces conducted more than 1,380 operations and killed or captured about 430 insurgent leaders. NATO says more than 2,030 other insurgents were captured and nearly 500 were killed.
"Their capabilities were degraded to a great extent last year, but the real test will be to see the spring offensive, the first three months in spring," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said.
If the Taliban attack in areas lightly defended by Afghan security forces instead of where there are more troops, it will indicate the insurgents are weaker this year, he said.
Wardak described a recent Taliban attack in Nuristan, where they overran a small and remote district in late March, as "opportunistic." He argued it did not say anything about the Taliban's strength, "but it did give them some propaganda."
"If they rely much more on suicide bombings combined with commando raids, it means they are not as strong," Wardak said. The Taliban in the past have fought pitched battles in large numbers, but they now face more coalition troops and a far bigger and better equipped Afghan force.
This has bolstered the theory that the Taliban will switch tactics and resort to low-cost suicide attacks against so-called soft targets.
A White House quarterly report to Congress last week said that a recent rise in high-profile suicide attacks suggests "this trend could reflect a shift in Taliban tactics against softer government, Afghan National Security Forces and civilian targets."
It also warned that it appears that the Taliban leadership "remains confident of its strategy and resources, and heavy fighting is expected to resume this spring."
There are strong indications that the Taliban already are making dry runs, especially in the south and east. In southwestern Helmand province, they ordered four private cellular network operators to turn off more than 800,000 cell phones so they could move their forces around without fear of being reported.
On Saturday, the Taliban called spring of 2011 a "season of shining hope." They announced military victories against American and French troops throughout the country and boasted about assassinations of leading Afghan security officials, according to SITE Intelligence group, a U.S.-based organization that tracks extremist websites.
The Taliban reiterated their call for an unconditional American surrender, claiming that the forthcoming withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan combined with recent militant successes foreshadows Western defeat.
But the coalition, also known as the International Security Assistance Force, is not waiting for the spring fighting season to start.
"There won't just be a Taliban spring offensive," Petraeus said. "There will also be an ISAF and Afghan force offensive."
A weeklong joint operation by 650 Afghan and U.S. troops in early April in eastern Kunar province targeted insurgents who were trying to set up hideouts in its remote mountainous regions. NATO said more than 80 insurgents were killed in the operation. Six U.S. soldiers also died.
"We are initiating our offensive and after the poppy season we expect them to start in earnest, but we are not waiting for them," said NATO spokesman Lt. Col. John Dorrian. "This operation is our offensive. We are not going to wait, we will go after them when they are setting up."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Berlin contributed to this report.