The top US military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, called past American neglect toward Afghanistan a "culture of poverty" in a recent meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Times. Both the nation of Afghanistan and foreign troops in Afghanistan have been under-resourced as America put its attention squarely on Iraq during the past administration.
Now, that is changing. But tellingly, Admiral Mullen suggested that, eight years after the Taliban was routed, the US military is still digging "out of a hole" and has yet to reach "year zero."
Diplomatic and military leaders have repeatedly warned that Afghanistan presents far a more complex set of challenges than does Iraq. Now that America is turning its attention toward Afghanistan more fully, it appears to be discovering the depth of the situation.
The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, reportedly is set to ask for an increase in troop levels. This is on top of the 21,000 President Obama has already sent there as part of his shift from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The man who preceded General McChrystal wanted more troops, too. His standing request for 10,000 additional troops never received a response from Washington.
McChrystal's request – if it materializes – is bound to receive more serious consideration, given that he was hand-picked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But it is not likely to be met enthusiastically by those of in the left wing of Mr. Obama's Democratic Party.
Nor is the assertion by General Jones (retd.) that it could take a further 12 months to know whether the US-led coalition is making progress in Afghanistan.
Pointedly, Jones rejected a claim by McChrystal's senior counterinsurgency adviser, David Kilcullen, that the US and NATO would be involved in Afghanistan for another 10 years. Yet increasing familiarity with Afghanistan leads to more sober assessments of the work ahead, as Obama's team is learning.
Largely illiterate, riven by ethnic and tribal factions, and without any legal economy, Afghanistan lacks many of the building blocks that Iraq – despite its sectarian strife – had.
Afghanistan has been in a state of war virtually since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and in the decade before the fall of the Taliban, it was run by thieves, warlords, or religious fanatics.
Only in the past few months has the US begun to appraise these generation-old crises fully and consider the cost of the remedy – hence Mullen's comments about the US not yet reaching "year zero."
The toughest work, Jones suggests, still lies ahead.