President Barack Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan on Dec. 3 is just the latest sign that his administration's latest review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is in full swing. "Today, we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have the chance to build a more hopeful future," he told an assembled crowd at Bagram Air Force Base. "You will succeed in your mission."
Back in Washington, officials are trying to determine what success looks like. They are assembling a comprehensive "report card" of U.S. efforts, with inputs from all the departments and agencies that have a hand in the region. The White House wants to know which of its policies have demonstrated success, and which ones are failing.
Many assessments will probably prove inconclusive. The effect of the U.S. troop surge on the military balance of power will be particularly tough to measure, especially in those regions of Afghanistan where new forces have only been at work for six months or less. This will also be true for a wide variety of other newly expanded programs, for which resources will need to be applied over a longer time frame in order to show concrete signs of progress. Kabul, after all, can't be rebuilt in a day.
Amid this sea of ambiguity, at least one clear judgment is possible: Washington's political strategy in Afghanistan deserves a failing grade.