While Afghanistan continues to slip into chaos, with a sharp increase in Taliban-led attacks on U.S. troops, a booming opium harvest and stalled reconstruction efforts, questions are being raised about President Hamid Karzai's leadership of the troubled country.
Karzai, known for his debonair fashion sense, was hailed as the face of Afghanistan's future when he was promoted by the coalition forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
In the early days after he decisively won the 2004 presidential election, he was widely praised for his steady leadership during the country's fragile new era. But in recent months Karzai has come under fire, literally and figuratively.
Karzai, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in April, has taken the brunt of the blame for not acting forcefully against a resurgent Taliban and for failing to stem endemic corruption in the security forces and reconstruction teams in the desperately poor country.
Things have deteriorated so badly that some Afghans say they preferred the rule of the Taliban, which imposed strict Shariah religious law in the country from 1996 to 2001, according to Afghanistan experts.
"I just got a letter from someone in Kandahar," says Barnett Rubin of the Council on Foreign Relations. "He says the situation is worse than it was under the Taliban. There is no clean water and no security."
The perception of Karzai's failures are even more glaring in light of the stunning rebound of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, who turned around a reputation for weak leadership by taking forceful action against Shiite militias and consolidating his political base.
After Maliki ordered his forces to retake Basras, ordinary Iraqis celebrated by downloading his face onto their cell phones as screen savers and President Bush praised him, saying that the decision demonstrated Maliki's "leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an even-handed manner."
Though the two leaders rule over vastly dissimilar countries — Afghanistan is a rural and tribal culture where power is largely decentralized, while Iraq's relatively educated population has long been ruled by a strong leader — Karzai and Maliki's disparate fortunes are striking nonetheless.
For U.S. forces, Afghanistan's deterioration is critical. With its violent sectarian fighting and homegrown insurgency, Iraq has long taken the focus of the American public and American policymakers off Afghanistan. But renewed violence in Afghanistan poses an increasingly imminent threat.
In May 2007, 126 American soldiers were killed in Iraq compared to 11 in Afghanistan. Of course, there are roughly four times as many troops in Iraq.
The situation is now reversed, with June U.S. and coalition troop deaths in Afghanistan surpassing those in Iraq, where there are roughly four times as many troops, for the second month in a row. On Sunday, nearly 200 Taliban fighters overran an American-run outpost in a well-coordinated attack, killing nine U.S. soldiers, the worst single loss for the American military in the country since June 2005.
In addition, attacks using improvised explosive devices rose 35 percent last year, according to a recent Pentagon report that laid the blame for the poor state of Afghan security forces on corruption, a shortage of trainers, and "a lack of unity of effort within the international community."