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Rock bottom

"Why are we still in Afghanistan?" Tom Ricks asked in a blog post Monday morning. He answered his own question: "I don't know."

His short post -- which did not mention this weekend's horrific alleged shooting outside Kandahar -- probably speaks for millions of Americans. Although anti-war critics and some military thinkers have long complained about the problems with the war, it has been off most people's radar. Now it's back, and you can feel the deep resignation settling in across the board.

"Instead of the promised orderly exit from a decade-long war, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan now appears to be stumbling from one disaster to the next," wrote Stars and Stripes' Leo Shane. "The weekend massacre of at least 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly committed by a rogue U.S. Army staff sergeant, caps a string of recent crises that are ratcheting up the danger American troops face in Afghanistan even as they struggle to extricate themselves from a conflict that is increasingly unpopular with the American public."

More than 70 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup last year said they approved of President Obama's plan to withdraw American troops, and a poll out Monday shows one of the lowest public opinions of military power in years. Just 54 percent of people surveyed said they agreed the U.S. was still the world's no. 1 military power, according to Gallup, down from 64 percent last year. (The lowest figure was 51 percent, recorded in 1999 amidst the war in Kosovo.)

Three-fifths of Americans in an ABC News-Washington Post poll said the war in Afghanistan hasn't been worth fighting.

As Shane wrote, even GOP presidential candidates are backing off their support for the war:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, in a television appearance hours after the attack, said that the U.S. approach in Afghanistan now is “risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable.” His rival, Rick Santorum, said Obama either needs to commit more troops to the fight or “get out sooner” than 2014.
Another contender, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has been a longtime opponent of the war.

It's a bleak picture, made all the worse by recalling that that the international exit from Afghanistan was never going to be pleasant. American military and intelligence officials have as much as confirmed the government's bleak official forecast for postwar Afghanistan, even though it's secret: CIA Director David Petraeus has told lawmakers the National Intelligence Estimate about the post-withdrawal situation looked too far out and did not take into account recent developments there. But taking that at face value, it implicitly confirms the Obama administration's own assessments are as grim as everyone else's, despite its official rhetoric about partnership and staying the course.

So is there any hope? A best-case scenario might look like this: The U.S. withdrawal continues apace amid simmering mistrust between the foreign and Afghan troops. Meanwhile, American and Afghan officials continue their negotiations for a continued postwar troop presence. If that deal provides for enough American special operators to continue training Afghans and also going after al Qaeda operatives in the neighborhood, that could be as good as it gets. The U.S. just needs to be sure Afghanistan does not once again become an ungoverned space from which terrorists can plot unmolested, and the ability to keep special operators nearby to clean house as needed might be the best outcome of the war.

But the "Asian roundabout" fantasy and the onetime visions of orderly nationhood are all as good as gone. Even if it seems like they can't agree on anything else, Americans at every level may have reached the point of consensus that they just want the Afghan war to be over.

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