Inconclusive election results in Afghanistan, disappointing voter turnout and the prospect of rising ethnic tensions and political turmoil are new roadblocks to the Obama administration's plan to turn around a backsliding war.
The U.S. had hoped the national voting, run by Afghans themselves with heavy international backing, would demonstrate that stability was within reach in Afghanistan and worth the steep price in dollars, time and American combat deaths.
Instead, the presidential election last week highlighted old problems and pointed to disturbing new challenges, including the prospect of political paralysis and parochial squabbling while U.S. combat deaths soar.
August is on pace to be the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began nearly eight years ago. A U.S. service member died Thursday in a militant attack involving a roadside bomb and gunfire, bringing to 44 the number of U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan this month.
With the war worsening on President Barack Obama's watch, an increasingly skeptical American public may soon be asked to support a fresh infusion of U.S. combat troops on top of 21,000 combat forces and others Obama sent this year as part of a start-from-scratch strategy to protect Afghans and peel off support for the Taliban insurgency.
Just above 50 percent of respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week said the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.
"We want to try and enable the Afghan government to take responsibility not only for its reconstruction, but also for its own security," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said when asked whether the election would help reduce violence and allow new economic development.
Violence is at peak levels this summer, and the Taliban has the edge in some unexpected places. Top U.S. military leaders said this week that reversing insurgent gains will take significant time and lives.
"Despite important achievements in various areas, given the deterioration in the security situation, an enormous amount of hard work and tough fighting lie ahead in Afghanistan," Gen. David Petraeus, who has overall responsibility for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the American Legion's national convention in Louisville, Ky.
A week since the Afghan election, there is no clear winner and no definite timetable for determining who is on top. That leaves the United States, the single largest backer of the fragile Afghan government and the largest contributor of troops, without a clear Afghan partner for ambitious development and anti-corruption plans that have been on hold pending the election.
Afghan election officials have released two early batches of vote tallies that show incumbent President Hamid Karzai with 44.8 percent of the vote and top challenger Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, with 35.1 percent. The next partial results are expected Saturday.
A candidate needs to get above 50 percent to avoid a runoff. Final results won't be known for weeks. A runoff, if there is one, probably would be in October.
As frustrating as a runoff might be, from the U.S. perspective it is preferable to a first-round victory by Karzai that comes by suspicious margins.
Allegations of fraud are mounting along ethnic lines, and the United Nations and other international officials are worried about the possibility of violence if Abdullah's followers believe the election was stolen.
A few international analysts have said the fractures on display in the election could spread to north-south civil war.
The tensions may not subside either if Abdullah ends up the winner. He is half ethnic Tajik, and is considered the "northern" alternative to Karzai's Pashtun-dominated southern base.
Analysts are split on whether ethnic Pashtuns would embrace a Tajik leader, but Pashtuns were a key ethnic supporter of the Taliban when the fundamentalist militants seized power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Now stateless insurgents fighting U.S. forces, the Taliban is again strongest in Afghanistan's Pashtun regions in the South.
Obama and his aides have distanced themselves from Karzai, a favorite of former President George W. Bush, but have tried not to appear close to Abdullah either.
Meanwhile, turnout was paltry in southern districts where British forces and U.S. Marines all but held the door for Afghan voters. Obama dispatched 17,000 additional combat forces to Afghanistan ahead of the election, but the threat of Taliban violence and reprisal apparently kept voters at home.
The Times of London reported Thursday that only 150 of the several thousand Afghans eligible to vote in the Babaji area of Helmand province cast ballots. Four British soldiers were killed there this summer, a toll the newspaper recalled with the blunt headline: "Four British soldiers die for the sake of 150 votes."
The election was supposed to launch new development, agricultural reform and other advances that U.S. Afghanistan policy chief Richard Holbrooke has said require a foundation of political legitimacy.
A runoff probably would mean a further delay of at least two months for many of the most ambitious plans. Obama's new war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is expected to lay out a bleak assessment of the deteriorating war next week that will point fingers at an underperforming Afghan government and recommend vastly expanding the size of Afghanistan's own security forces.
Later in September, Obama may be asked to approve several thousand more troops for next year. A record 62,000 U.S. troops are now in the country, with 4,000 more due to arrive before the end of the year.
National security adviser James Jones and others have made plain the White House distaste for a troop increase, and the expected request will force Obama to decide whether to further expand the war.
A runoff also would mean changes to the military plan for the fall, when fighting typically subsides. U.S. military planners said American forces presumably would replay their roles helping to secure polling places in formerly Taliban-held reaches of Helmand province and elsewhere, but Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to spell out details before election results are known.
Associated Press writer Robert H. Reid in Kabul contributed to this report.