It seems that just about every major country has had a go at trying to either conquer or stabilise Afghanistan, all of these attempts failing in one form or another, the most recent attempt being the Russian occupation which fell apart after 15 years of trying.
So what is it about Afghanistan that seems to be so important as to prompt major countries to go even into the place and I think we might restrict the analysis timeline back to the Russian withdraw.
Afghanistan is virtually impossible to control outright as an entity. The country is about as rugged as one can get with high mountains, narrow passes and inhospitable plains that stretch for very long distances. Large slices of the country are virtually impossible to get access to during the winter months and the border regions are extremely difficult to control.
When the Russians actually withdrew from Afghanistan, they left behind a virtual feudal state with the various clans writing their own rules and regulations. It was during that time that the Taliban became a force in Afghanistan with more than a little help from their operatives in Pakistan. The power vacuum also provided an opportunity for outfits such as Al-Qaeda and others to operate and thrive in Afghanistan, again with more than a little help from inside Pakistan. The Taliban eventually occupied most regions throughout Afghanistan apart from a few regions that were still controlled by the Northern Alliance, a loosely combined entity designed to defeat Taliban rule. The events of 9/11 and the chase to capture Osama-Bin-Laden and members of Al-Qaeda changed the scene and with a large amount of mainly American input, the country changed hands again with the Karsai regime officially taking over the country.
The Taliban never having been completly defeated and Osama and co never having been captured, the current status in Afghanistan is one of confusion to almost the old feudal status. The official Government controls Kabul but not much else and the old warlords, as corrupt as ever, are now sitting in Parliament feathering their own nests. Overall levels of corruption are at record highs and the support that is required of the population in order to cement proper Government processes have all but been destroyed. Which leaves the Taliban. The Taliban has a weapons-trained force of about 12,000. This force employs classical guerrilla tactics, apart from a few add-ons, and this force mostly operates in the border regions near the Pakistan border area moving in an out of Pakistan more or less at will. As NATO has discovered, the Taliban are fierce opponents. The tactics are normally 'hit and run' but Taliban units have been known to stand their ground with reasonable effectiveness. Given the rugged nature of the countryside, most of the fighting is done during the non-winter seasons.
The problems for NATO are multiple. NATO can forget any notion of normal military operations being effective. In this sort of country with this opponent, normal operations won't work. Small SAS style units can be very effective in this environment and a certain number of these kinds of forces are being deployed. In Afghanistan, an adequate supply and support system is vital and with NATO forces being operated well outside their home-turf, supply lines are stretched to the limit. The 'hearts-and-minds' factor, a classical guerrilla tactic, also employed by NATO and allied forces, will only have limited success in this country for NATO for as long as the central Government in Kabul reeks of corruption and in that department, the support for Taliban is growing. With spring imminent, any expectation of major battles between the sides is substantial but with NATO seemingly applying tactics that are not relevant in this instance, only aspects such as airpower will see NATO through and air strikes have a substantial risk of unwanted casualties being associated with such strikes.
In total though, while this year NATO might have limited success in containing the Taliban, the longer-term prospects look vastly different no matter how large the NATO involvement is. I can see a similar scenario occurring as the Russians suffered and, with the current NATO strategy in place, an ultimate NATO defeat in Afghanistan should not be ruled out.
Add to that the Pakistan factor whereby the longer-term prospects of Pakistan surviving as a pro-American dictatorship are minimal and the prospects for Afghanistan and the region look grim, this given the fact that Pakistan is nuclear-armed and has substantial amounts of modern military hardware.
We shall have to wait and see as to the possible outcomes of this ongoing conflict.