All of these conditions—sharing power, cleaning out corruption, etc.—are difficult to meet. Karzai has formed coalitions with regional warlords and drug-traffickers because Afghanistan is a concatenation of regions and tribes run by warlords and drug-traffickers, and it’s easier to manipulate the existing power bases than to push through drastic and perhaps-futile reforms. But if these conditions are not met, the foreign aid won’t pour forth, and thus the essential foundation of a successful counterinsurgency campaign—a central government that the people have some reason to support—won’t be in place.

The good news is that President Barack Obama seems to understand this. Last March, when he announced his decision to deploy 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, he emphasized, “We will not blindly stay the course” and, “We will not, and cannot, provide a blank check.” He also said that he and his advisers would formulate “benchmarks” and “metrics” by which success or failure would be gauged and on which continued U.S. commitment or withdrawal would depend…

Then again, understanding a situation doesn’t necessarily lead to making wise choices or even knowing for certain just what the wise choices are. The administration has still not decided what those “benchmarks” of success and failure should be. In an especially troubling moment, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was asked by a reporter to define success and replied, “We’ll know it when we see it.”