Four years ago, when then-Sen. Barack Obama was campaigning for president, he said of Afghanistan: This is “a war that we have to win.” He also claimed, “The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring because the security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared.” But after three years of Obama’s being commander in chief, it ought to be clear that he never really believed his own campaign rhetoric. Now, in the aftermath of recent setbacks, his words are further evidence of presidential ambivalence and uncertainty. None of this bodes well for those who hope for a positive outcome in the shadows of the Hindu Kush.

This week, after a U.S. soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in Panjwai, a hamlet in Kandahar province, Obama appropriately promised to “make sure that anybody who was involved is held fully accountable with the full force of the law.” Though Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated this commitment during a long-planned but unannounced two-day visit to Afghanistan, other unanticipated events — a reality in all wars — clouded the message.

Even before Panetta arrived, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was demanding that U.S. and NATO troops cease combat operations in populated areas and be confined to major bases. Then, as Panetta’s aircraft approached Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, an Afghan national crashed a commandeered pickup truck, which burst into flames just off the base runway. By the time Panetta arrived at a meeting with American, British and Afghan personnel, U.S. Marines and British troops that mustered for a “meet and greet” with the secretary had been ordered to remove their weapons from the site.

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