Barack Obama says he will make Afghanistan the central front in his fight against terrorism but the incoming US president will have to scale back the war aims he inherits from George W Bush and redefine success.
Bush ordered the US-led invasion in 2001 to oust a Taliban government that was harbouring al Qaeda militants blamed for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
His declared goals were to defeat the Taliban, create a stable democracy and promote economic development, but he turned his attention quickly to Iraq before the task was done.
Since 2005, a revived Taliban insurgency has made growing inroads against understaffed U.S., NATO and Afghan forces, while President Hamid Karzai's ineffective government has been mired in corruption and a booming illegal drugs trade. The most Obama can hope to achieve in a mountainous country that wore down British and Soviet invaders is probably an ethnic power-sharing pact, including tribes that now help the Taliban, in hopes of keeping al Qaeda at bay once Western forces leave.
That is far from assured and would require cooperation from a weak Pakistani government transfixed by tension with India.
NATO officials see 2009 as crucial to turning the military and political tide before some allies start to withdraw in 2010.
"The basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it's too little good governance," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer wrote in a Washington Post article on Sunday.
"We have paid enough, in blood and treasure, to demand that the Afghan government take more concrete and vigorous action to root out corruption and increase efficiency, even where that means difficult political choices," he said.
Yet despite disenchantment with Karzai, no alternative leader is in sight with a presidential election due in September.
Asked in a Reuters interview last July what would constitute succees in Afghanistan, Obama said: "I think our goals have to be very modest but they will still be very difficult to meet. We should want a functioning Afghan government that can maintain its own security and territorial integrity.
"...Our highest priority is making sure that the Taliban and al Qaeda can't continue to use that region from which to launch attacks around the world. If we have routed them and scattered them, that would be success," he said.
Despite plans to send up to 30,000 additional US troops to reinforce the 32,000 already in Afghanistan, of whom about half serve in the 50,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the prospect of routing the Taliban is remote.
Without extra forces, the West risks "a stalemate situation where we are not losing, but also not winning," says De Hoop Scheffer.
NATO casualties rose by 34 per cent last year, fuelling public and parliamentary unease in many allied nations. Long, vulnerable supply lines from Pakistan to land-locked Afghanistan are under attack.
Attacks on Afghan government property and personnel were up by 134 per cent and civilian casualties by 50 per cent.
The British military is gloomy about security in the southern province of Helmand, where it is in the front line.
The Taliban are gaining public support, partly due to anger over civilian casualties from NATO air strikes. Despite heavy losses, they seem to have no problem recruiting fighters.
Sensing that time is on their side, Taliban leaders see little interest in local reconciliation talks offered by Kabul.
Karzai, stung by the civilian toll and perhaps with one eye on the elections, has been increasingly outspoken in criticism of foreign troops, further undermining public support for their presence and aggravating mistrust with his Western backers.
On a visit to Berlin last July, Obama challenged NATO allies to do more, saying the United States and Germany had a stake in seeing NATO's first mission outside Europe succeed.
But European allies are unlikely to send more troops, and NATO officials expect Obama to present a shopping list of requests for police training, financial and development assistance, as well as military equipment such as helicopters, to avoid a public failure at his first alliance summit in April.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the key to success lies in Afghan public support and "Afghanisation" of the war. That requires accelerated training of the Afghan army and police and enrolling some tribal militias as security forces.
The European Union could do more than its present paltry 200 police trainers. But after pledging to double that number, it is having difficulty finding volunteers.
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, veteran Pakistani expert Ahmed Rashid and US Afghan specialist Barnett Rubin said: "The goal of the next US president must be to put aside the past, Washington's keenness for 'victory' as the solution to all problems, and the United States' reluctance to involve competitors, opponents or enemies in diplomacy."
They advocated a major diplomatic initiative involving India, Iran, Russia and China in a regional "contact group" to stabilise both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
General David Petraeus, who changed US tactics in Iraq to roll back a Sunni insurgency, has advocated such a regional political approach in Afghanistan, and veteran troubleshooter Richard Holbrooke may lead that diplomatic drive.
But Obama has little time to find a more effective combination of military pressure and diplomatic incentives to avoid being ground down in Afghanistan.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)