WASHINGTON - Washington continues to wait on results from last week's elections in Afghanistan, but few analysts here expect the outcome to provide much of a boost to the U.S.-backed campaign against the Taliban, regardless of who wins.
This skepticism about the elections is just one symptom of a growing sense of disillusionment in the U.S. about the course of the war in Afghanistan, both in the foreign policy establishment and among the general populace.
Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented debate in the U.S. media about whether the war - at least in its current incarnation as an intensive counterinsurgency and development effort aimed at defeating the Taliban and building a strong Afghan central state - is worth fighting at all.
War supporters argue in response that President Barack Obama and his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, should be given a 12- to 18-month window to turn the war effort around - setting up a potential showdown around the time of the 2010 U.S. congressional elections.
Early results from the Aug. 20 Afghan elections began to trickle out this week. On Wednesday, the country's Independent Election Commission said that incumbent President Hamid Karzai has received 42 percent of votes counted so far, compared to 33 percent for his leading challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
The current results would leave Karzai short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff, but it is difficult to extrapolate from the ballots counted so far without a geographical breakdown of where they came from.
Abdullah has already alleged fraud on the part of the Karzai campaign, and analysts in the U.S. do not discount the possibility. Last week, IPS's Gareth Porter reported that Karzai was collaborating with leading Afghan warlords to pad his vote total and avoid a runoff election.
Other analysts note the importance of Karzai's alliances with warlords for his reelection campaign.
If Karzai wins in the first round, "he almost certainly will owe it to the endorsements that he got in the days just before the election from several warlords... most notably Abdul Rashid Dostum", said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council (NSC) analyst who chaired the Obama administration's Afghanistan/Pakistan strategic review earlier this year, at a Brookings Institution panel on Afghanistan Tuesday.
Dostum, the most powerful leader among Afghanistan's Uzbek minority, is known for a human rights record that is widely considered to be atrocious even compared to his fellow warlords.
"If Karzai is returned to office now because of Dostum's support, then hopes for anti-corruption, good governance, and the rest are going to be rather weak in the second round of the Karzai administration," Riedel said.
Karzai has been widely criticized for the perceived corruption of his government, and appears to have lost much of the confidence of his U.S. backers. Still, most analysts see Afghanistan's problems as more institutional than personality-driven.
"Regardless of who wins, we will not have people capable of governing," said Anthony Cordesman, an influential military strategist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), at the Brookings panel. "Karzai is corrupt and lacks capacity; Abdullah has governed precisely nothing in the way of a large-scale structure."
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the situation in Afghanistan is "deteriorating".
Cordesman, if anything, was more pessimistic. He claimed that the Karzai government has either lost control or is at high risk of losing control in 40 percent of its territory, and that the latest U.S. government and media estimates of the growth of the Taliban threat have been "flatly dishonest".
Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War and a leading Afghanistan hawk, agreed with Mullen's assessment, but claimed that a stepped-up counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign could turn the tide.
Kagan argued that a successful COIN campaign would require both a further increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a reallocation of troops within the country.
In the wake of what has frequently been portrayed as the success of the "surge" strategy in Iraq - of which Kagan's husband, Frederick Kagan, was a chief proponent - many hawks have argued that the lessons of the surge and of COIN can be applied to Afghanistan as well.
Mullen and Defence Secretary Robert Gates installed McChrystal and ousted his predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, in large part due to the belief that McChrystal was better suited to run an unconventional COIN-style campaign.
Since his accession, McChrystal has emphasized civilian protection as the foundation of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and Obama has added 17,000 troops to the U.S. force. Many suggest that further troop increases will soon prove necessary.
Supporters envision a redoubled civilian development effort to complement the military effort, in accordance with the COIN mantra "clear, hold, and build".
But critics argue that the decline in violence in Iraq was due to a number of factors, many of them having little to do with the U.S. "surge", and that hawks have been too quick to embrace COIN as an all-purpose solution to the current woes in Afghanistan.
"We need to stop talking about 'smart power' as if we have it," Cordesman said Tuesday. "As yet, you cannot find anywhere in American military literature a definition of what 'hold and build' means, or a single statement by any U.S. official to indicate when the capability... to provide hold and build will be deployed."
He described the situation in Afghanistan as "all-too-familiar, not just to Iraq, but to Vietnam".
Other COIN skeptics also make the Vietnam analogy - a reference to the last time COIN was ascendant in military circles, and the U.S. entertained hopes of reshaping hostile societies through force of arms joined to civilian expertise.
As Obama leans toward an escalated COIN campaign in Afghanistan, a growing number of commentators have begun to ask whether the U.S. is taking a wrong turn.
While support for the war has declined dramatically among the U.S. public - with 51 percent of U.S. citizens believing the war is not worth fighting, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll - recent weeks have been notable for the sudden willingness of voices within the foreign policy establishment to question the war.
Last week, Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass took issue with Obama's claim that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity", arguing in The New York Times that Afghanistan is "not just a war of choice but a tough choice".
Haass offered tentative support for Obama's strategy, but urged the consideration of alternative policies, up to and including the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
A blunter assessment came in July from Rory Stewart, a Harvard professor and British parliamentary candidate, who wrote in the London Review of Books that "it is impossible for [the] allies to build an Afghan state", and labeled the entire allied strategy "the irresistible illusion".
The influential COIN-themed blog Abu Muqawama, which generally focuses on tactical and operational issues related to COIN rather than broader political questions, went so far as to host a week-long debate this month on whether the war is in the interests of the U.S. and its allies.
Adm. Mullen told the Washington Post Wednesday that with the right resources, the U.S. and its allies could make progress against the insurgency within the next 12 to 18 months.
Many war supporters have echoed this timeline in response to skeptics, with both Riedel and Kagan saying Tuesday that the allies should be given 12 to 18 months to show progress before any decision on whether to scale back the war effort is made.
A 12- to 18-month timeline would mean a reassessment of the war in late 2010 or early 2011 - right around the November 2010 U.S. congressional elections.