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A decade on, what can the US accomplish in Afghanistan?

As senior US officials head to a major meeting on Afghanistan this coming week, underlying their talks will be a simple question: what can Washington hope to accomplish there with fewer troops, less money, and less time?

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High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton talks with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai during a dinner one day ahead of the Afghanistan conference to be held in Bonn.

Frank Augstein/AP

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As senior U.S. officials head to a major meeting on Afghanistan next week, underlying their talks will be a simple question: what can Washington hope to accomplish there with fewer troops, less money, and less time?

U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are far more modest than they were in the months following the September 11 attacks, when the West hoped to replace the Taliban's backwardness and brutality with a secure democracy at the crossroads of Asia.

After years in which the war was overlooked and underfunded, President Barack Obama focused this "war of necessity" in 2009 on the threat from al Qaeda and on enabling Afghanistan to fend off its enemies for itself.

Yet even U.S. goals for Afghanistan today, which include providing a modicum of security, making progress against endemic poverty and improving weak, corrupt governance are in question as Western nations move to curtail their role in a war most officials believe cannot be won on the battlefield.

The United States "has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows the U.S. and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan that even approaches the outcome of the Iraq War," Anthony Cordesman, a long-time security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently. "Far too many U.S. actions have begun to look like a cover for an exit strategy from Afghanistan."

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