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In forgotten war, failure ‘a realistic prospect’

It’s often dubbed the other war. Sometimes the forgotten war.

But the six-year battle in Afghanistan is coming off its deadliest year yet, and observers say 2008 could be a turning point in a region that’s a strategic nexus for terrorist groups.

In 2007, U.S. and NATO troops faced a sharp escalation in terrorist violence and a resurgent Taliban, and experts criticize the effort as underfunded and unfocused. A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations called failure in Afghanistan a “realistic possibility,” and the U.S. report – the Afghanistan Study Group – says resurgent violence is a “serious threat” to the effort.

Though overshadowed by the Iraq war in terms of attention, troop levels and casualties, Afghanistan was the first front in the so-called war on terror, and it has retained more public support, both in the United States and worldwide.

U.S. and British troops attacked in October 2001, routing the Taliban government over several months; at the time, President Bush also declared that finding Osama bin Laden and dismantling al-Qaida were key goals. Several European countries have joined the coalition.

In six years, more than 760 coalition soldiers have died in the war, including 482 Americans, according to a count compiled by CNN. Five soldiers from the Inland Northwest have lost their lives. The United Nations estimated violence increased 30 percent last year, and the resurgence of the Taliban is just one among many problems facing U.S. and NATO forces. More than 100 U.S. soldiers died in 2007, the most in a single year since the war started, according to the Afghanistan Study Group report released in January. More than 240 foreign soldiers were killed.

But the biggest toll was among civilians there – more than 1,000 died last year, another peak figure for the war.

The study group report, commissioned by the nonprofit Center for the Study of the Presidency, said the U.S. has tried to win in Afghanistan with too few resourcesand without a consistent, coordinated effort among the countries to deal with the Taliban, rampant drug trafficking and deep poverty.

It called for more troops and resources to be devoted to the war and for a decoupling of Iraq and Afghanistan in U.S. planning and funding, among many other steps.

A report by the European Council on Foreign Relations takes a different tack, saying the coalition has relied too heavily on military force and has lacked common goals. European countries involved have viewed it more as a peacekeeping effort.

In a January report, the council said, “Failure in Afghanistan is a realistic prospect,” and there’s no end foreseeable in the short term.

“A swift and successful end to the conflict is out of reach; even optimistic scenarios foresee an international presence in Afghanistan for years to come, with fighting continuing, albeit on a reduced level,” the report said.