Kabul: After 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan, Western forces and their Afghan allies are finding no simple answer to a seemingly straightforward question: Who, exactly, is the enemy?
The pattern of recent insurgent attacks on prominent targets, even as Afghan forces gradually assume more responsibility for security, highlights long-standing confusion over the nature and motives of an often unseen foe.
To frontline soldiers — about 90,000 Americans, plus their Western and Afghan allies — the battle with the Taliban and other insurgents is a grimly visceral affair that plays out daily, one roadside bombing, nighttime raid or dangerous foot patrol at a time.
But for Afghan civilians, their shaky national government and Western diplomats seeking a way out of the conflict, there is perhaps less clarity than ever about the war's chief actors and their ultimate aims.
The Taliban movement and various splinter groups make contradictory statements. Alliances shift. And behind it all, more are seeing the hand of neighbouring Pakistan.
A group of Afghan political leaders summed up that uncertainty in a statement issued after a meeting in late September with President Hamid Karzai about the fading prospects for negotiations with the insurgents. "Peace with whom?" they asked. "With which people?" The Taliban movement is hardly alone in its battle with Western forces. Allied militias such as the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, remnants of Al Qaida and an assortment of other factions can make it difficult to know who is fighting — and who is empowered to speak as a peacemaker.
Hopes for a political settlement with the Taliban suffered a potentially fatal blow with the grisly death of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, who was killed on September 20 by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban envoy. Karzai, who in the past had made frequent appeals to "disaffected brothers" among the Taliban, is now signaling a reluctance to engage them.
Afghan's intelligence service declared that the killing was plotted "outside the country," its usual code for Afghanistan's more powerful neighbour.
A presidential commission set up to investigate the assassination said the attack was plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the seat of the main Taliban leadership council. The bomber, it said on Sunday, was a Pakistani man from the town of Chaman along the Afghan border.
Other Afghan officials have said they suspect Pakistani intelligence played a role, a charge that Pakistan's Foreign Ministry rejected on Sunday.
As it starts its military withdrawal with the departure of about 10,000 troops by year's end, the United States also remains focused on raids by special operations forces to kill or capture mid-level Taliban commanders.
Over the weekend, the Nato force disclosed that it had captured Haji Mali Khan, described as the senior Haqqani figure in Afghanistan. Pakistan's entanglement with the Haqqani network, considered the most virulent and dangerous insurgent faction, has come under intensified scrutiny.
Admiral Michael G. Mullen, outgoing head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outraged Pakistani officials by charging on September 22 that the Haqqanis were a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.
The Obama administration subsequently softened that criticism somewhat, but tensions are running high over Pakistan's status as a base for both the Taliban leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura, and the Haqqani network, whose home turf is the North Waziristan tribal agency.
Nato's International Security Assistance Force said last week that the number of hostile attacks was rising in Afghanistan's east, the Haqqanis' main sphere of operations.
A spokesman, German Brigadier-General Carsten Jacobson, blamed the increase on "insurgent support emanating from Pakistan." Over a span of two weeks, both the Taliban and the Haqqanis have issued unusual denials that they take sanctuary in Pakistan.
Pakistan's key concern probably lies in influencing the outlines of any agreement reached with the insurgents. At times the Taliban and the Haqqanis appear to operate in close concert. In what appeared to be coordinated statements, the Taliban leadership also recently declared that the Haqqani network operates under its control, not Pakistan's — echoing chief Siraj Al Deen Haqqani's assertion that the network would follow the Taliban's lead on entering any talks.
To some observers, any distinction between the groups is artificial. "The Taliban and the Haqqanis are committing the same kind of terrorism," said Afghan military analyst Atiq Allah Amarkhail. "I don't see a difference between them."
Access low in some parts
The International Committee for the Red Cross says access to medical care in some parts of Afghanistan has reached a "critically low point" because of the deteriorating security situation.
The ICRC said local clinics have been forced to close because of fighting, attacks on the premises and intimidation of staff.
The organisation said that despite improvements in the quality of life for some people in Afghanistan, the security situation "in many areas of the country remains alarming."It did not specify which regions are affected, but violence around Afghanistan has been steadily escalating.