As senior U.S. officials head to a major meeting on Afghanistan next week, underlying their talks will be a simple question: what can Washington hope to accomplish there with fewer troops, less money, and less time?
U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are far more modest than they were in the months following the September 11 attacks, when the West hoped to replace the Taliban's backwardness and brutality with a secure democracy at the crossroads of Asia.
After years in which the war was overlooked and underfunded, President Barack Obama focused this "war of necessity" in 2009 on the threat from al Qaeda and on enabling Afghanistan to fend off its enemies for itself.
Yet even U.S. goals for Afghanistan today, which include providing a modicum of security, making progress against endemic poverty and improving weak, corrupt governance are in question as Western nations move to curtail their role in a war most officials believe cannot be won on the battlefield.
The United States "has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows the U.S. and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan that even approaches the outcome of the Iraq War," Anthony Cordesman, a long-time security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently. "Far too many U.S. actions have begun to look like a cover for an exit strategy from Afghanistan."
The meeting, headlined by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will focus on Afghanistan's economic future and on defining the West's future presence in Afghanistan.
Despite plans to steadily shrink its Afghanistan force, the Obama administration has vowed it will not abandon the country as the West did following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Officials link investment in a long-term presence in Afghanistan – which could include bases and a major diplomatic footprint even after most foreign combat troops go home at the end of 2014 – to defending U.S. national security.
The military mission on the ground in Afghanistan, however, has been much broader than just defeating al Qaeda.
U.S. commanders say Obama's 2009 decision to deploy an extra 30,000 troops has paid off in the Taliban's southern heartland. They now hope to connect that to the capital.
Yet the outlook in the country's rugged east, where militants from the Haqqani network and other groups crisscross the lawless border with Pakistan, is much more troubling.
A series of high-profile attacks this fall, including an assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and the assassination of the former Afghan president, the country's top official for peace talks, also rattled the narrative of improving security.
"We have important work to do inside Afghanistan. I will say that a great deal of progress is being made. Insurgents have been under increasing pressure," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Friday.
"The enemy remains dangerous, and they are capable of violence, as we have seen, regrettably," he said.
Many worry that an array of militants, in the absence of enough foreign troops and an adequate improvement in local security forces, will plunge Afghanistan back into major violence.
"If you don't deal with that, then where are you going to be five years from now?" asked Jeffrey Dressler, a security analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
"You could have even a greater sanctuary and safe haven than you had before 9/11," he said.
Military commanders are now drawing up plans for how they will stretch a shrinking force to match that threat as Obama moves to withdraw the surge force by next fall.
Underlying Obama's plans is the new fiscal reality of the U.S. government, mired in debt and facing big budget cuts.
"Here it's just pure numbers and the amount of money we're spending in Afghanistan," said Brian Katulis, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress.
The Pentagon has sunk $330 billion into Afghanistan. While lawmakers are loathe to be seen as stiffing the troops, support for future spending of that order is all but inconceivable.
Fiscal pressures are compounded by Congress' mounting exasperation with what they see as Karzai's erratic behavior and with growing recognition that Pakistan may never cooperate as desired against militants fueling violence in Afghanistan.
Even the most Herculean of U.S. efforts may not matter without more cooperation from Pakistan, which is boycotting the Bonn conference after NATO aircraft accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.
While the details of what happened are still unclear, the incident has laid bare lingering bilateral tensions and the gap between U.S. and Pakistani ambitions for Afghanistan.
U.S. officials are pressing ahead with efforts to broker a deal outlining the long-term U.S.-Afghan relationship even though night raids and other issues remain sticking points.
The deal will include a commitment in principle to a U.S. military presence after 2014, which will focus on supporting Afghan forces and on targeted operations against militants.
U.S. officials insist Washington is not walking away. One senior U.S. official said the goal of the conference in Bonn and an earlier one in Istanbul was "to send a message to the Taliban and anybody else that, actually, international engagement and investment in Afghanistan is not over."
FIGHT, TALK, BUILD
Despite tactical successes in the south, even Western military officials say Afghanistan cannot be won by fighting alone – it also requires effective diplomacy and a viable plan to put Afghanistan on its feet economically.
Yet the impact of the West's aid effort – Congress has provided nearly $73 billion to rebuild and train local forces since 2002 – is another question mark beyond some important achievements in education and maternal and child health.
The U.S. strategy now rests on two objectives: building a local army capable of fending off militants, and brokering a peace deal with the Taliban. Both are ambitious goals.
While Clinton has pointed to initial contact between U.S. officials and the insurgency in efforts to broker a peace deal, there is scant evidence that a substantive agreement can be reached in the near term. It is also a politically risky course for Obama with his re-election bid less than a year off.
Efforts to build a strong local security force have succeeded in adding and arming men – and in many cases teaching them to read – but it remains unclear whether this force will have the ability and desire to take on the Taliban and other groups as foreigners go home.
The West, especially the United States, will be required to underwrite that effort for years to come.
Analysts say the U.S. effort in Afghanistan remains hobbled by bureaucratic tensions and the lack of a shared goal for what Afghanistan can and should look like after 2014.
"We fought, we tried to build, and then quite belatedly we mapped out a strategy for trying to talk," said Katulis, of the Center for American Progress, referring to Clinton's triple strategy to 'fight, talk, build' in Afghanistan. "But those three components were never well synced with one another."