Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew into Afghanistan early Thursday morning, and this visit had a far different tone to it than her last one in June 2006.
Afghanistan is not going well according to several recent reports, although Rice's own description is on the positive side.
"I think Afghanistan ... is moving forward," Rice told reporters traveling with her, but she admits it is "certainly a challenge."
Less generous evaluations say President Hamid Karzai's nascent democracy is "faltering," and there is great concern (at least in Washington and European capitals) about Afghanistan becoming a state dominated by opium poppy - in effect becoming a "narco state" - despite the billions that have been spent in aid.
Then there is the Taliban. They're back, and although perhaps not as much of a threat as in the past, they've switched tactics and are now using suicide bombings and kidnappings to sow havoc.
To counter the Taliban's re-emergence, NATO has tried to raise more forces from its member states to throw into the fight, but very few hands are being raised to volunteer. Washington has agreed to send in an additional 3,200 Marines and wants other NATO allies to step up as well. "Our populations need to understand the mission - it's not a peacekeeping mission. It's counter-insurgency." The alliance, Rice said, "is facing a real test."
Rice began this trip by stopping in London to meet with Prime Minister Gordon Brown. When she showed up in Kabul the next day, she had her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, alongside. The two diplomats are facing a complex task. On the one hand, they have to convince their own allies to carry more of the burden in Afghanistan, which is a difficult political stand for some in NATO to take.
On the other hand, Rice and Miliband have to persuade Karzai to do more, to make better use of the aid he's already getting. "This is a two-way street," Rice told reporters as she flew into Kabul. "Everyone has to step back and get concerned with the Taliban."
Earlier she had emphasized another theme, insisting that Afghans were not the only ones threatened by a resurgent Taliban: "It's a necessary challenge not only for Afghanistan's people but for our own security," she said in London before heading to Kabul.
To illustrate the importance of defeating the Taliban again, Rice and Miliband flew to Kandahar in Afghanistan's South. It was Rice's first trip to Kandahar, and one senior official traveling aboard her plane told reporters, "This is an opportunity for two principles to do a reality check on the ideas we're trying to implement."
Rice met not only with military leaders there but also with civilian members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams who work directly with local Afghan leaders to build institutions which can govern in areas outside the capital. They also tackle projects like schools and roads.
Kandahar was the Taliban's former base of operations and changing the way things are done there is difficult. Rice and Miliband thus dropped in on Kandahar Airfield, which is the Regional Command South for NATO and coalition forces in the country. Thirteen thousand or so Western troops are based there, representing almost every NATO country.
Miliband said they "were there to listen and to learn." Rice told several hundred troops assembled to hear them that the fight against the Taliban "is the core fight…and it's a tough fight." Later, at a news conference with Karzai back in Kabul, Rice again hit the same theme, saying the Taliban and al Qaeda have "turned increasingly to the tactics of cowards."
As if to emphasize the long-range view she is taking, Rice said coalition efforts at countering the insurgency have been good but that work is "incomplete," adding for emphasis "It's not work that will be completed overnight."
It was just a one-day visit, but it felt like a week.