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As more and more angst begins to surface about the trajectory of the U.S./NATO counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan, there's a real danger in missing the point. The administration's stated time line for withdrawal is a problem, but it is not the problem. (It's also worth noting that the administration has repeatedly insisted that the draw down only begins in July 2011 and is "conditions-based.") The fundamental problem is the nature of the outcome the U.S. is trying to achieve in the country.

Surge boosters in particular are hiding behind the announced time line as a way to mask their own analytical failure to enunciate achievable goals at acceptable costs.

Anthony Cordesman offers a caveat-laced case for the war, and in doing so reveals the basic strategic problem facing the U.S.:

The fact is, the strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and essentially too close to call. The main reason is instead tactical. We are already there. We have major capabilities in place. If we can demonstrate that the war can be won at reasonable additional cost in dollars and blood, it makes sense to persist. But, only if we can demonstrate we can win and show that the additional cost has reasonable limits. Containment and alternative uses of the same resources are very real options, and would probably be more attractive ones if we could somehow â??zero baseâ? history. The reality is, however, that nations rarely get to choose the ideal ground in making strategic decisions. They are prisoners of their past actions, and so are we. [Emphasis mine]

This is true for al Qaeda of course, but much less so. We are laboring in Afghanistan as much, if not more, for prestige than for any kind of major victory against al Qaeda, which has already demonstrated the ability to not only set up shop elsewhere, but to reach into the United States via the Internet for recruits.