All the usual cliches are being used in the run-up to Wednesday's expected announcement from President Obama about how fast and how soon the 30,000-or-so additional troops who went into Afghanistan during the "surge" will be coming home.
Milestone. Turning point. Critical.
Pick your word.
But this is worth bearing in mind:
"Even if the president decides to decrease the force presence say by 5,000 to 10,000 forces this year, presumably downsizing them when the fighting season ends, after the fall, that still leaves a lot of questions for 2012, '13, '14 and beyond that have not been resolved," says Seth Jones.
He's a senior political strategist at the Rand Corporation, author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan, and one of the advisers who took part in last year's review of Afghan strategy for the president.
Jones, who recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan that the president has basically three options:
-- "The sort of classic counterterrorism strategy that many people, including some in the White House, have advocated, which is reducing most U.S. forces to a bare minimum, perhaps several hundred Special Operations forces who do primarily targeted actions against al-Qaida and other foreign fighters and potentially some senior Taliban in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan."
-- "Something along the lines of the status quo right now, which is a fairly robust conventional and Special Operations footprint, which would do both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, still probably several divisions in Afghanistan, maybe 60,000 forces by something along the lines of 2012, '13 and then slowly decreasing by 2014."
-- "Downsizing especially the conventional presence over time by 2014 pretty significantly and focusing on the use of Special Operations forces both for targeting action but also for training Afghanistan national and local security forces."
With most reports indicating that the president is likely Wednesday to say that somewhere up to 10,000 troops will be leaving Afghanistan by year's end, that would still leave about 90,000 U.S. military personnel in the country and a lot of decisions to be made, Jones said — and those decisions will surely be affected by events on the ground.
And as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the decisions will be complicated. One key issue: will Afghan forces be ready anytime soon to take over security?
"An area of Afghanistan that was the scene of major combat a year ago is now a test case for whether peace can hold in the country," Tom said on All Things Considered. "North of the district of Marjah, in Helmand province, Marines are working with locals who know the area and know the enemy.
" 'It's basically like a neighborhood watch with guns,' explains Marine Sgt. Jon Moulder.
Tom added that, "if America ever finds something close to success in Afghanistan and is able to withdraw large numbers of troops, it may be because of the likes of Mohammed Gul and Isutalah. The two men wear gray uniforms and man a small patrol base set along a dirt road as part of that local defense force, called Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, or ISCI."
They're paid $150 per month.
Here's one more thing to consider, according to Spencer Ackerman at Wired.com's Danger Room blog:
"All the D.C. punditocracy is playing a numbers game about President Obama's troop reductions from Afghanistan. And once, again, that misses the whole point of the war's next phase. What matters isn't how many troops Obama withdraws this year, or next. It's how the drawdown supports Taliban peace talks, the only real ticket out of the war. ...
"The key criteria for determining how the Afghanistan war will end won't be how fast the drawdown goes. It'll be how the drawdown supports the peace talks. Obama could float temporary halts in hostilities to entice the Taliban to more serious negotiations. Or he could say that the fighting will continue in intensity if the Taliban are intransigent. It could go any number of ways."