A year after the Taliban fell to an American-led coalition, a group of NATO ambassadors landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, to survey what appeared to be a triumph - a fresh start for a country ripped apart by years of war with the Soviets and brutal repression by religious extremists.
With a senior American diplomat, R. Nicholas Burns, leading the way, they thundered around the country in Black Hawk helicopters with little fear for their safety. They strolled quiet streets in Kandahar and sipped tea with tribal leaders. At a briefing from the U.S. Central Command, they were told that the Taliban were now a "spent force."
"Some of us were saying, 'Not so fast,'" Burns, now the undersecretary of state for political affairs, recalled. "A number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear as a political and military force."
But that skepticism never took hold in Washington. Assessments by the CIA circulating at the same time reported that the Taliban no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports. The American sense of victory was so robust that the top CIA specialists and Special Forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan were packing their guns and preparing for the next war, in Iraq.
Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the American military call "the good war" off course.
Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the American focus wavered. Taliban fighters seeped back over the border, driving up the suicide attacks and roadside bombings by as much as 25 percent this spring, and forcing NATO and American troops into battles to retake previously liberated villages in southern Afghanistan.
They have scored some successes recently, and since the 2001 invasion, there have been improvements in health care and education, as well as the quality of life in the cities. But Afghanistan's embattled president, Hamid Karzai, said in Washington last week that security in his country had "definitely deteriorated."
One former national security official called that "a very diplomatic understatement."
Among the most recent evidence of a Taliban resurgence is the kidnapping of 23 South Koreans. Two men originally kidnapped have already been killed.
A Taliban spokesman said yesterday that two sick female South Korean hostages would be released "soon" for the sake of good relations between the Taliban and South Korea. Neither the international Red Cross nor the Afghan government could immediately confirm the claim.
The spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the two women would be freed because they are sick. He said the decision had been made by the Taliban's high commanders, but he said it had not yet been decided when the women would be freed.
Two Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials met yesterday for the second day of face-to-face talks over the fate of 21 South Korean hostages held since July 19 by the militants. The two said earlier yesterday that the Koreans would "definitely" be released, possibly as soon as "today or tomorrow."
"The Taliban's big commanders have decided for the sake of good relations between the Taliban and the Korean people that without any conditions they are soon going to release two sick women," Ahmadi said.
Franz Rauchenstein, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that neither the Taliban nor South Korean officials had talked to the Red Cross about facilitating the release of hostages, and that he could not confirm that two women were to be freed.
Marajudin Pathan, the local governor, said he had not heard that two women would be released and that it hadn't been discussed during negotiations yesterday. He said talks would continue today.
"Qari Ahmadi [the Taliban spokesman] is somewhere in Pakistan," Pathan said. "He's just running his mouth. They [the Taliban] are always giving contradictory statements."
Mullah Qari Bashir, one of the Taliban negotiators, said the face-to-face talks were going well and that the Taliban were sticking with their original demand - that 21 Taliban prisoners be released from prisons in Afghanistan.
Pathan said he didn't think the hostage crisis would be resolved by prisoner release, "but we'll see if it's by some other avenue." He refused to specify if that meant a ransom payment, though he has said previously he thought money would resolve the situation.
Separately, Taliban militants attacked a small U.S. base in southern Afghanistan early yesterday for the second time in a week, and the U.S.-led coalition said the insurgents could be probing for intelligence for a future attempt to overrun the outpost.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.