WASHINGTON Afghanistan's presidential election amid a U.S. troop buildup and surging Taliban violence brings pressure on Washington to show results in a war the president has made the centerpiece of his foreign policy.
The August 20 presidential vote comes after the deployment of some 30,000 extra U.S. troops that has raised the level of American forces to 62,000. Combat deaths are rising and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year war.
President Barack Obama, by following up on his campaign vow to wind down the unpopular Iraq war and shift resources to the older campaign in Afghanistan, has drawn fresh public attention back to that country -- increasing pressure to show progress.
"We all feel the impatience and pressure of the American public and the Congress, which legitimately wants to see progress," Said Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Asked to define success in that campaign, he said: "In the simplest sense ... we'll know it when we see it."
"They (the Obama administrations) haven't fully developed exactly how they are going to demonstrate to the American people and Congress that they're using the money and resources effectively to achieve progress," said Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.
Impatience is rising, polls are starting to indicate.
In the first major survey after a record 44 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in July, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll showed popular support for the war at an historic low, with 54 percent opposed to the war and 41 percent in favor.
NO TERRIBLE OUTCOME?
Other polls have shown a similar slide in support for the war in Afghanistan this year, which had consistently enjoyed greater support than the Iraq war.
"Americans have sort of soured on the 'good war' concept as Afghanistan doesn't seem to be getting any better," said Nick Mills of Boston University's journalism department.
In a reminder of the threat, the Taliban on Saturday claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb that killed seven people outside the headquarters of the NATO-led international force, in the heart of Kabul's most secure district.
Violence has surged recently, with the Taliban stronger than at any time since they were driven from power eight years ago. The militant group has mounted bold attacks on provincial government buildings and vowed to disrupt the election.
Thursday's election pits incumbent Hamid Karzai against 35 challengers. Two recent polls have Karzai with a comfortable lead over his nearest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, but not enough to avoid a second round run-off.
Brookings Institution foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon said that whoever wins, "there's not going to be a terrible outcome" because Washington could work with any of the top candidates.
But he added that because of endemic corruption, narcotics, poverty and violence, the election offered not a fresh start for Afghanistan, but a "modest boost in the right direction."
Holbrooke said Washington will look to Kabul once the election is settled "to reinvigorate, or invigorate if it's a different president, the leadership" in fighting corruption and drugs and boosting agriculture and rule of law.
"What they're hoping for at the very least is increased legitimacy for Afghan leaders at the presidential level and then in the provinces," said Katulis.
Analysts say that despite dipping polls, Obama has so far held onto the support and patience of the U.S. public and Congress, but this may not last.
"If there's really bad headlines coming out of the elections, there could be pressure on the Obama administration to change course," said Mills.
"We need to be in a position to be able to show progress -- within a year," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a news conference.
A measure of progress, he said, would be "a situation, as we have seen in Iraq over the past two-and-a-half years, where more and more of the security responsibility will flow from the international security forces to Afghan security forces."
Analysts also give Obama a year to show progress. Mid-term Congressional elections in November 2010 will give U.S. voters a chance to voice weariness with the war.
"I think President Obama would have at least the grudging tolerance of the American people through 2010," said O'Hanlon.
"If we haven't seen progress in the course of next year, however, I think all bets are off."
(Additional reporting by Deborah Lutterbeck)