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Afghanistan is making undeniable progress, but it could all unravel

Despite this, the coalition and the Afghans appear to finally be turning the tide in our favor, and a great deal of this can be credited to President Obama for deciding to send more troops. Unfortunately, the President has stated that we will begin bringing troops home this year.

This puts him in a bind. To keep his word, the President may have to undermine the very success that he facilitated.

And especially since the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, others can be expected to ratchet up the political pressure on Obama should he not begin the drawdown on schedule. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner for the 2012 election, said this last week: “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over… we’ve learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals. But I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”

Gen. David Petraeus is the boss here in Afghanistan. He has been tasked with making a recommendation on troop withdrawal. He arrived in Washington last week, where he is recommending a timetable for the drawdown of the 30,000 “surge” troops sent to the country in 2009.

Obama had promised that those troops would start coming home in July, but conditions on the ground always matter more.

On June 5, I asked Petraeus in his Kabul office for insight into his recommendation to the President. He told me he has not yet told anyone what his recommendation will be.

Many people are waiting. Not even his staff knows.

Petraeus, tapped to take over the CIA upon his retirement from this post, has accumulated a long string of unlikely successes in Iraq, and increasingly in Afghanistan. These efforts have been far more than mere war. Our people triumphed in the kinetic fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan years ago; the far greater difficulties have been the second wars fought in both countries during the long nation-building phases.

Any politician who says we are not nation building in Iraq or Afghanistan should be dismissed. Nation building is the course we chose, and nation building is what is occurring. Slowly.

In Iraq, a government was shattered and rebuilt. In Afghanistan, there was no government to shatter. Afghanistan was just an area where a lot of people lived, and today it’s being built up from mud and sticks. For instance, there was not a single meter of paved road in Ghor Province.

A country is being built from scratch and nobody has more experience at the messy and difficult job of “shatter and create” than does Petraeus. He knows his business, his profession and his art, and he knows more about the current war than anyone alive. His recommendation will carry significant weight.

But while we do this critical work, our young warriors are still dying and being wounded in large numbers. People at home are asking if Afghanistan is worth the sacrifice. And then there is the economy, still struggling and endangering our country strategically. The war here is very expensive.

Is it worth it? This is a hard question. We made the judgment that this war was worth fighting when we put our warriors into the arena in the first place. We’ve already jumped and now we are deciding whether to land on our heads, our rears or our feet. We cannot unjump. Our people are fighting as you read this. When we ordered our military to go, we cloaked ourselves in great responsibility to support them and to achieve success.

Our troops have two responsibilities, which are tightly interwoven: Win the war and create Afghanistan. It is not the troops’ place to consider the global economy. They are not to consider unfolding debacle in Libya, the long challenges in Iraq or the dark side of the moon.

And so when Petraeus makes his recommendation to the President, his recommendation should not include any consideration of the U.S. economy, the debt or jobs in America. He is the man in the arena. The man in the arena does not collect parking tickets, or work at the concession stand or concern himself with the electric bill for the stadium. He beats his opponent to the ground. Or, in this case, beats some opponents into the ground and builds a country simultaneously. His recommendation to the President should be pure, devoid of outside considerations.

We must be honest about what we can accomplish. This is a century-long process. A little Afghan girl is watching me write this opinion. She appears to be about 4 years old, and she keeps peeking around the door smiling at me while her mother is cleaning the house and her father takes care of the property. The girl follows me around the house. A storm is coming and a lightning bolt just zapped the electricity. I am unarmed but safe in Kabul, and if this little girl is lucky, and we do not abandon Afghanistan, she may one day end up in a university.

Petraeus told me that at its peak, violence in Iraq was four times higher than current violence is here. This seems about right. I can drive around Afghanistan in many places. I’ve been back in Kabul for almost two weeks and have not heard a single gunshot or explosion, though I did feel an earthquake.

This isn’t Baghdad. During peak times in Iraq, you couldn’t go 30 minutes in Baghdad without seeing or hearing something. The most dangerous city in Afghanistan is Kandahar, yet I have driven around Kandahar many times, including recently, without a shred of armor. I could never have survived this in Fallujah, Basra, Baghdad, Baquba or Mosul. I have driven this year, without troops, to places in Afghanistan where last year I would have almost certainly  been killed, such as Panjwai. You don’t need thick intelligence reports to translate those realities.

Shouting at an oak tree will no not make it grow faster, and ignoring a sapling in this desert will leave it to die. An acorn was planted in 2001, and we mostly ignored it for more than half a decade while our people fought so hard in Iraq. Today, that acorn is a scrawny, 10-year-old oak tree that was so neglected until 2010 that it nearly died. Its skinny branches are still so weak that a sparrow dare not land, and while we focused on Iraq, the enemies here stayed busy nibbling away at anything green. Yet over the past year of extra care, there are clear signs of life and new growth.

Meanwhile, our enemies here are being monkey stomped. The rule of monkey stomping has never changed. Don’t stop stomping until the enemy stops breathing. This enemy has earned respect for its courage, resilience and will-not-quit spirit, but there is only so much it can take.

At this rate, the Graveyard of Empires, the Undefeatables, will need a new advertising campaign. Our enemies here are turning out to be the Almost Undefeatables. The many good Afghans want to move forward. They want their kids, boys and girls, to see better days.

The bottom line is that there are unmistakable signs of progress in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus is about to make a very important recommendation.

His judgment should be trusted.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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