KABUL, Afghanistan — For almost 10 years, the United States has fought a war in hopes of making the world safer from terrorism. Now, as President Barack Obama vows to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014, a question persists: What, if anything, has been won?
There have been victories and setbacks. More than 1,522 American service members have died. There is talk of a more stable, safer Afghanistan - and frequent, obvious evidence to the contrary. The country's president and the United States share an uneasy relationship, and it's difficult to tell the story of the past decade in a single, concise statement.
In more than 30 years of warfare, there has rarely been clarity in Afghanistan. You can't always tell who's on which side, and sometimes people are on both. Conventional battles are common, as is shadowy guerrilla warfare. Yesterday's enemy is today's ally. Tomorrow he's an enemy once again.
Afghans are dying by the thousands in a conflict which began to free them from al-Qaida, whose leaders are mostly hiding in Pakistan, a nominal American ally.
America's chapter in Afghanistan's struggle is drawing to a close. President Barack Obama has said he will withdraw a third of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops by next summer and end combat operations in 2014 - with or without even a semblance of a lasting success.
Much work remains unfinished even after almost a decade of war and billions of dollars in aid. Although battered, the insurgents still control large swaths of the country, and it is nearly impossible to travel safely from the capital to the southern city of Kandahar.
Efforts to establish effective government, especially at local levels, have achieved limited success at best. Afghanistan's security forces remain far from capable of defending the country. And only about 2,000 of the estimated 25,000-40,000 insurgents have joined a highly touted program to reintegrate into society.
In announcing the timetable, Obama spoke of building a "partnership with the Afghan people that endures" long after the last American service member has gone home.
That pledge was reminiscent of the Soviet assurances to their Afghan clients when they, like the British a century before, concluded that fighting in Afghanistan wasn't worth the cost in blood and treasure and withdrew in 1989.
Moscow left behind a friendly government and a well-equipped Afghan army. Three years later, that government collapsed, the army fell apart and the country was again engulfed in war.
The U.S. entered Afghanistan in October 2001 to strike at al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks. Another goal was to oust the ruling Taliban, which arose from the chaos in the wake of the Soviet defeat, and also Osama bin Laden and his network.
The Taliban were dispatched with relative ease by U.S. air power and ground forces provided by militias that had resisted the hard-line Islamist movement. The U.S. and its partners established a government in Kabul, setting the stage for democratic elections.
But the Bush administration shifted its attention and resources to Iraq and a new war to bring down Saddam Hussein.
Faced with limited resources, Afghan President Hamid Karzai reached out to the militias and warlords that Washington had used to oust the Taliban. With that, the new government sank into a quagmire of corruption and favoritism - opening the door to the revival of the Taliban. By 2006, the country was facing a full-blown insurgency.
Old alliances shifted back and forth. The man who invited bin Laden to Afghanistan is now a member of parliament and a Karzai crony. The warlord who helped rescue Karzai from fighting in Kabul in the 1990s now leads one of the main insurgent groups fighting his government.
Obama entered office promising to focus attention on the Afghan conflict, which he described as a "war of necessity" as opposed to Iraq, a "war of choice." He doubled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and in December 2009 dispatched 30,000 more troops to try to stop the Taliban momentum.
In doing so, Obama in effect changed the character of the war. His commanders employed the counterinsurgency strategy that brought some success in Iraq, coupling military force with an ambitious, troop-intensive plan to push insurgents from their strongholds so the local government could build a system of services and institutions to win the loyalty of the people.
The military always knew there would never be a winner in the war. Instead, it hoped to create the necessary groundwork for a process of reconciliation and reintegration to encourage insurgents to re-enter Afghan society.
But the investment proved too much for an American public weary of war and struggling with an economy marked by job loss and rising deficits.
Even with troop reductions, the United States is facing huge expenses if it sticks by Obama's plan. Building and funding a 300,000-member Afghan army and police will cost an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion a year even after 2014. The U.S. paid $22 billion in 2010 and 2011 to train and equip the Afghans.
The dilemma is that without such an investment, Afghanistan could again slip into civil war as it did when the Soviets left 22 years ago.
With such a complex ethnic and political landscape, few believe Afghanistan will enjoy peace anytime soon.
"I think an optimistic, hopeful outcome is nonetheless one in which some pockets of insurgency persist after 2014, but are contained and hopefully degraded over time primarily by the Afghans themselves," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. "For us the key is that no large sanctuaries develop. I am optimistic on these points."
Pessimists, including many Afghans, fear that once the foreign troops leave, the country will descend into a new civil war.