Perhaps the biggest challenge in Afghanistan is understanding what the heck is going on. Put differently, despite a public debate there is still no real grip on what it is, we are facing. And even to international observers its kind of hard to understand the foreign policy rationale of the Obama-administration when it comes to Afghanistan. To me it seems to boil down to two questions, or, as we shall put for the moment, circles.
First, the Obama-administration has made it a point to start thinning out its forces in July 2011. Undoubtedly that has undermined efforts in Afghanistan, since even the current administration knows that a new strategy fully implemented only since September this year cannot yield tangible results till July next year. This is the most classic circle in the history of international interventions: the conflict between end-dates and end-states. Obama is angling for an end-date, while the military has committed itself to an end-state (that is the Petreaus crowd). Hence Petreaus continued efforts to ease the administration out of the strict timeline.
Second, the strict timeline, the knowledge that tangible results cannot be achieved by July and the failure to lead a real surge in Afghanistan have made it absolutely clear that the administration wants out of Afghanistan. This directly contradicts Obama's claims that the Afghanistan-campaign is a campaign waged out of necessity and that the international community (let alone NATO one might add) cannot afford to loose in Afghanistan.
Needless to say all of this is bad. But what is worse is that virtually nobody in the administration has the slightest idea of how to improve government services in Afghanistan. David Kilcullen, the world's leading expert on counterinsurgency, once pointed out that in this kind of stability operation you are only as good as the government you are supporting. That's saying something. Which is why we have defeated the Taleban twice and they managed a resurgence. And even if we were to defeat the Taleban again, which I might add is still possible, the lack of legitimacy of the government would turn such a victory into a hollow one.