Gen. David Petraeus sailed through Senate confirmation so quickly in late June that few people noticed what he had to say about his new job as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that American forces face many more battles against a determined and resilient Taliban. "My sense is that the tough fighting will continue," Petraeus said. "Indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months."
But Petraeus said that as the fighting increases -- and American casualties rise -- the public should remember that "progress is possible" in Afghanistan. Petraeus knows that's true, he explained, because he has seen it.
"For example, nearly 7 million Afghan children are now in school as opposed to less than 1 million a decade ago under Taliban control," Petraeus said. "Immunization rates for children have gone up substantially and are now in the 70 to 90 percent range nationwide. Cell phones are ubiquitous in a country that had virtually none during the Taliban days."
It was an extraordinary moment. Americans overwhelmingly supported the invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In eight and a half years of war there, 1,190 American service members have died. And after all that sacrifice, the top American commander is measuring the war's progress by school attendance, child immunization and cell-phone use.
That sort of nation building, especially in a place as primitive as Afghanistan, has never been popular with American voters. It's especially unpopular when combined with highly restrictive rules of engagement that have tied the hands of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, exposing them to danger from an enemy they're not allowed to strike.
Petraeus has promised to review those rules in light of evidence they have caused needless American deaths. The latest example came in the Rolling Stone article that led to the firing of Petraeus' predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The article told how U.S. commanders wanted to destroy an abandoned house used by the Taliban to launch attacks, but were denied permission. Then, a 23-year-old Army corporal was killed there.
"Does that make any f--king sense?" a fellow soldier asked. "You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?"
In another scene detailed by author Michael Hastings, a soldier confronted McChrystal about the rules. "We aren't putting fear into the Taliban," he told the general.
"Winning hearts and minds in (counterinsurgency operations) is a coldblooded thing," McChrystal responded. "The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn't work."
"I'm not saying go out and kill everybody, sir," the soldier responded. "You say we've stopped the momentum of the insurgency. I don't believe that's true in this area. The more we pull back, the more we restrain ourselves, the stronger it's getting."
Put aside the fact that American leaders in Afghanistan are unironically using the phrase "hearts and minds" -- the very words used to describe the folly of U.S. policy in the Vietnam era. Does the American public want to continue a war in which Americans die because they're not allowed to fight back when attacked, all for the purpose of increasing school attendance, child immunization and cell-phone use?
President Obama's deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011 was a topic of much discussion at the Petraeus hearing. There's disagreement in the Senate over the timeline, but the public's opinion is clear.
A recent Gallup survey found that 58 percent of those questioned support Obama's timetable, versus 38 percent who oppose. Of those opposed, 7 percent say they're against the timetable because withdrawal starts too late. Add them to the 58 percent who support withdrawal as scheduled, and you have 65 percent of Americans who want a withdrawal that begins no later than July of next year.
Given the dreary assessments we've heard from Petraeus and McChrystal, it's unlikely any great victories in Afghanistan will change those opinions. This is not a blame-Obama issue. The first seven years of the war were not his doing. But the decision to leave or stay in Afghanistan is his to make.
Near the end of the Rolling Stone article, one of McChrystal's top aides, Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, gave a bleak forecast of the war's end. "It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," Mayville said. "This is going to end in an argument."
If that's the case, why not just get out and start the argument now?