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Nine years ago, the United States worked with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban government in Kabul. The world was united, the cause for war was clear, and U.S. President George W. Bush enjoyed the support of roughly 90 percent of Americans. That was a long time ago.
Today, the war in Afghanistan is a controversial conflict: fewer than half of Americans support the ongoing effort, even as roughly 100,000 U.S. troops are in harm's way. Troops from more than 40 countries still make up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but fewer than ten of those countries take substantial risks with their forces in the turbulent south and east of the country. And as the Netherlands prepares to depart Afghanistan this year and Canada remains committed to doing so in 2011, two of these coalition partners will likely soon be gone. Meanwhile, support for the coalition among Afghans has declined to less than 50 percent from highs of 80-90 percent early in the decade.
Over the years, the U.S. mission has lost much of its clarity of purpose. Although voters and policymakers in the United States and elsewhere remain dedicated to denying al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, they have begun debating whether a Taliban takeover would necessarily mean al Qaeda's return; whether al Qaeda really still seeks an Afghan sanctuary, as it did a decade ago; and whether U.S. forces could contain any future al Qaeda presence through the kinds of drone strikes now commonly employed in Pakistan. The most pressing question is whether the current strategy can work -- in particular, whether a NATO-led military presence of nearly 150,000 troops is consistent with Afghan mores and whether the government of President Hamid Karzai is up to the challenge of governing and keeping order in such a diverse, fractious land.