KABUL, Afghanistan — When a female member of the Afghan police shot dead a US contractor last month, another grim new marker was laid down in the war.
The killing in Kabul was the first insider attack by a woman since the conflict began. It brought a tough year to a fitting end and served as an early signpost for what could be an even harder 2013.
American and NATO officials have been eager to talk about significant progress being made here, but for most people these are worrying times.
With foreign troops leaving, a presidential election edging closer and a potential peace deal with the rebels still far from certain, a crucial phase in the struggle for Afghanistan's future is set to unfold.
In certain corners of the country that fight is already well underway. Mountainous and remote, Nuristan is a small example of what could happen post-occupation.
Eight American soldiers were killed there in an October 2009 attack by hundreds of insurgents. Soon afterwards the US made what seemed like a hasty retreat — closing outposts and bases in the province.
Although periodic military operations have occurred in the area since then, only the rebels appear to pay it constant attention.
Hafiz Abdul Qayum represents Nuristan in the Afghan senate. He told GlobalPost the police there often only exist on paper, with corrupt local officials exaggerating the numbers to enrich themselves on money meant to pay for officers.
He claimed even the center of the province — a district called Parun — is divided into three part: the government, the Taliban and a rival insurgent group, Hizb-e-Islami.
"It is very difficult to remove anyone who sets up a position in Nuristan," Qayum said. "This was the reason the Russians were not able to capture the territory and it was the same with the Americans."
Unless the government pays more attention to the province, he added, rebels will use it as a staging post to spread further into the north and east.
Nuristan's isolation and historical reputation for being fiercely independent means the situation there could be viewed as an anomaly. However, some analysts see similar scenarios developing elsewhere.
A report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last September predicted the insurgents will start to make important gains this spring and summer.
"The coalition is likely underestimating the extent of the Taliban advance in 2013," the report said. It warned that within two years about a quarter of Afghanistan's districts could fall totally under militant control. Most of the others will be exposed to their activities.
Success will eventually mean they can "free up forces and focus on their next objective — the capture of provincial capitals."
One man who agrees the insurgents are capable of victory is Mohammed Hasan Wolusmal, a veteran journalist who met the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar several times in the years prior to the 2001 US-led invasion.
He believes the war will escalate in the months ahead as regional powers exert growing influence on the ground and popular support against NATO and the government gathers momentum.
"When the Americans and their allies came to Afghanistan the people were very happy, including me," he said. "But with lots of sorrow I say the Americans have drowned themselves and us."
The US Department of Defense takes a different stance. In a December 2012 report it claimed the rebels were losing “territory overall."
Insider attacks, government corruption and militant safe havens in Pakistan were acknowledged as problems, but the report said, "The coalition continued to make measured progress toward achieving its strategic goals."
It added that NATO would carry on redeploying troops and closing bases during the next six months in preparation for withdrawal at the end of 2014.
Before then Afghan forces are due to take the lead in combat operations across the country later this year. How stable the political situation will be throughout such a crucial period is a matter of some debate.
Attempts to negotiate with the insurgents have proved unsuccessful so far, but there are tentative signs that could change.
Ghulam Jelani Zwak, director of the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Center, told GlobalPost there was a strong chance of the Hizb-e-Islami rebel faction declaring its backing for a candidate in the build up to the April 2014 presidential election.
"I don't know if [the group's leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar will come and participate in the election or support someone. I think [he] will support someone," he said.
The main reason for this, Zwak explained, is a fear among the predominantly Pashtun insurgents that if they oppose the election, a candidate from one of the country's ethnic minorities could triumph.
Who that may be is still unclear as the old Northern Alliance movement that fought the Taliban in the 1990s is now divided.
Many Afghans fear these differences will cause the country to again descend into civil war. Although Zwak doubts that will happen, he does not expect a halt to the bloodshed anytime soon.
"There is hope for negotiations but the gaps between the Taliban, the United States and [the government] are very big. It's not easy to jump over these hurdles," he said.