Despite a sharp increase in suicide bomb casualties in the last week, NATO combat deaths are still less (217) than the first five months last year (220). NATO forces continue to do great damage to Taliban and drug gang base areas. This doesn't get much media attention, but the troops on the ground know they are costing the drug gangs a lot of money, and weakening Taliban capabilities to terrorize and recruit. The enemy still can't face NATO forces in combat without getting slaughtered. So, as in so many past conflicts, the enemy continues to seek other ways to survive. Playing the media and using terror have had more success, but not enough to stop the NATO/Afghan offensive operations. Some of the media manipulations are clever. In the south, where ammonium nitrate fertilizer (which can be used to make bombs) is banned, some media was convinced (or coerced) to believe that this ban was the cause of declining crop yields (to the exclusion of so many other factors that hurt yields). Other types of (non-explosive) fertilizer are available, and this is ignored in these stories, which have achieved some traction.
The drug gangs and Taliban only represent about 20 percent of the population (those who directly benefit from the drug trade and those committed to the Taliban goal of regaining national power), but are encouraged by increased talk in NATO countries about withdrawing military forces. This would make the drug gangs and their Taliban allies more powerful, because of the drug gang cash and Taliban skill at using terror. It would also take a lot of pressure off Islamic terrorist groups. Most Afghans (especially the non-Pushtun majority in the north) oppose these three groups. Even most of the Pushtuns (40 percent of Afghans) oppose the drugs and religious terrorism, but without the foreign troops, the most likely result is a destructive civil war, and growing demands (and possibly action) from Iran, Russia and Pakistan for "something to be done." These three nations are most hurt by the Afghan drugs (especially the cheaper opium, the more expensive heroin is for the more affluent West and oil-rich Arabs.) An invasion and partition of Afghanistan (by Iran, Pakistan and, from the north, Russian backed Tajikistan) would not be out of the question, since this sort of thing has happened before. In the past, Indian empires have controlled Afghanistan as far west as Kandahar, and Iranian empires have held territory as far east as Kabul. Same pattern in the north.
Another major casualty of NATO withdrawal would be many educational and economic development programs. The Taliban are hostile to education, especially for girls, while the drug gangs (full of, well, gangsters) would have an easier time criminalizing more of the economy. That sort of thing cripples the economy.
The Taliban and drug gangs are basically Pushtun organizations, and the suicide bombing attacks against government officials tend to target non-Pushtun officials. In Afghanistan, the Pushtuns are seen as the major troublemakers, with the drugs and terrorism the most obvious examples of this. Outside of Pushtun areas (where Pushtuns are easily spotted), other Islamic terror groups (that recruit among non-Pushtuns) are crucial in keeping the terror going, especially in the north. Despite that, there is much less violence in non-Pushtun areas.
The most carefully planned and heavily funded terror attacks are suicide bombings directed at senior government officials (especially those in the military, police and intelligence). A lot of these operations are carried out by the Haqqani Network in Pakistan (where this Afghan led group has been hiding since the 1980s fight with the Russians.) Most of the terror violence is directed at much less well protected targets (tribal and village leaders, staff and students at schools for girls).
One area where NATO sees a lot of progress is the training of Afghan security forces. These soldiers and police have become markedly more professional and effective in the last few years. But corruption is still a big problem, as it is everywhere else in Afghanistan. Once NATO forces left, these more effective Afghan troops would be more subject to getting hired by drug gangs and warlords, thus increasing the combat capabilities of these groups. But if the central government received enough Western aid money, the drug gangs (whose activities are about a third of GDP) would not be able to just buy the country. There would be a constant bidding war and decades of violence (see what has happened in Colombia and the Golden Triangle of Burma).
May 31, 2011: President Karzai wants to impose even stricter ROE (Rules Of Engagement), to eliminate civilian deaths. This is a response to a recent bombing that killed 14 women and children. The Taliban and drug gangs have invested a lot in the local media, to make each civilian death, at the hands of foreign troops, a major story. The majority of civilian combat deaths are at the hands of the Taliban or drug gangs, and the local media plays those down (or else). It's a sweet deal for the bad guys, and a powerful battlefield tool. The civilians appreciate the attention, but the ROE doesn't reduce overall civilian deaths, because the longer the Taliban have control of civilians in a combat situations, the more they kill. The Taliban often use civilians as human shields, and kill those who refuse, or are suspected of disloyalty. In most parts of Afghanistan, civilians are eager to get the Taliban killed or driven away, as quickly as possible. The number of civilian deaths, at the hands of NATO/Afghan forces, are spectacularly low by historical standards. The troops know this, some of the civilians know this, but the media doesn't care and the Taliban need a media win, as a way to extract something that is, otherwise, a military disaster for them. Last year, 2,777 Afghan civilians died in the fighting, most because of Taliban terrorism or using them as human shields. Deaths from NATO action were down 21 percent in 2010 and that trend continues.