2. Pakistan failed to meaningfully pursue Afghan Taliban. After the Taliban leadership relocated to Pakistan in late 2001, they were provided safe harbor by Pakistan's spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Talibs were allowed to meet and reorganize and even reestablish networks inside Afghanistan, but the Pakistani spies initially refrained from giving them overt assistance. Although ISI officials regularly met with a handful of senior Talib mullahs, Taliban commanders had to raise their own capital from drug trafficking and foreign donations, and they had to acquire their own munitions, which wasn't all that difficult in Pakistan. But in mid-2009, as American surge forces began flooding into southern Afghanistan, the ISI adopted a far more hands-on strategy. Concerned that U.S. gains on the battlefield would hobble the Afghan insurgency, ISI spymasters began interacting with far more Taliban commanders, often providing them arms and intelligence via civilian intermediaries. According to one assessment, at least half of all insurgent commanders were working closely with ISI operatives by the spring of 2011.
3. Afghan soldiers decided to hang back and let the Americans do the fighting. Instead of compelling Afghan soldiers into action, the surge sent the opposite message. What was supposed to be a kick in the pants -- or at least a golden opportunity to work in tandem with the Americans -- turned into a crutch. And that doesn't even take into account the recent spike in "green-on-blue" attacks; they are due, in part, to infiltration of the security forces by the Taliban, which accelerated during the rushed effort to expand the Afghan army.
4. The American people balked at the price tag. It costs $1 million to keep one American service member in Afghanistan for a year. That meant the annual bill for the war last year was about $100 billion. The surge also exhausted American patience, coming when the war was already in its eighth year. Even though many Americans shared the president's view that Afghanistan was a "war of necessity," only a slim majority of Americans supported his decision to send more troops. Popular support is essential for any drawn-out campaign involving tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of monthly casualties, and almost-daily fatalities. Had all the other factors played out differently -- had Karzai been a true partner, had the Pakistanis taken meaningful action against the Taliban, and had the U.S. economy not gone into reverse -- then perhaps the public could have rallied around such a large war effort. But when all those indicators pointed down, public opinion soon followed. Now, even a majority of Republicans believe the war is no longer worth fighting.
Still, despite all the misguided assumptions U.S. commanders held going into the surge, U.S. and NATO troops have made remarkable progress in the past three years. Parts of southern Afghanistan that were once teeming with insurgents are now largely peaceful. Schools have reopened, as have bazaars. People in some of those places are living as close to a normal life as possible. But Afghanistan as a whole is not fully secure. Eastern parts of the country are still in the grip of the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction that Mullen has called a "veritable arm" of the ISI. And in the south, a critical question lingers: Will the Afghans -- the government, the army and the police force -- have the will and the ability to take the baton from American troops? Will the Afghans sustain the gains? Will all of the blood and treasure the United States has expended have been worth it? Or will Afghanistan slip back to chaos?