The American mission in Afghanistan, beset by a series of setbacks and tragedies, has reached perhaps the lowest level of support in the U.S., and in Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the war started after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, released Monday, found that a staggering 69 percent of Americans thought the country should not be at war in Afghanistan. Backing for the war plummeted among both Democrats and Republicans in recent months.
And leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan appear equally sick of the war. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, America's erstwhile ally, has been using increasingly incendiary language to describe American troops, calling them "demons" recently as he demanded an accelerated withdrawal after the killing of 17 Afghan civilians which has been charged to a U.S. Army sergeant. Those deaths were just the latest in a cycle of violence that grew worse when Americans at the base in Bagram accidently disposed of several Qurans. Killings of U.S. and NATO troops that had been occurring for years increased after the Quran burnings, with three more NATO troops slain Monday.
American relations have also reached a nadir with Pakistan, with the legislature of that country meeting this week to create a harsh list of demands to be met by the U.S. in order to maintain a military presence there.
But if "the bottom is out of the tub," as Abraham Lincoln said during the darkest days of the American Civil War as defeat and disaster accumulated around his government, there are important reasons to stick to an orderly timetable of withdrawal from Afghanistan, and to pursue the goals of making the country secure and the government stable, according to experts.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who headed the Obama administration's Afghanistan-Pakistan review in 2010, concedes that the growing divide between U.S. and Afghan officials is jeopardizing chances to leave a functioning state and viable economy behind there when America completes its withdrawal.
"The nascent political process with the Taliban has been suspended and the gap between Obama and [President Hamid] Karzai is wider than ever," said Riedel, who is now a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution.
"But the stakes have not changed," he said. "If we give up in Afghanistan, the jihadists will win and gain a huge victory that will resonate around the Islamic world and especially next door in Pakistan."
There are roughly 90,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Gen. John Allen, told Congress late last week that he does not expect troops to be withdrawn more rapidly than announced targets to get the number down to 68,000 by 2014.
Allen said many of the problems festering between the U.S. and Afghanistan had their root in Pakistan, where insurgents are allowed to operate with impunity.
James Carafano, a senior analyst with the Heritage Foundation said a quick withdrawal from the region would compound the mistake of announcing a withdrawal date in the first place.
"Right now the two greatest impediments to progress are the Taliban and the strategy being followed by the U.S. president. Karzai is a distant third in the our list of problems," Carafano said.
Despite war fatigue, many military and intelligence officials, stress that Afghan security forces are improving -- but are not yet prepared to take complete control from NATO.
"It's a problem for the administration because the situation is so precarious," said a U.S. official who works closely with Afghan officials. "Pakistan U.S. relations are deteriorating. Pakistan seems to have the upper hand and President Obama wants this war over, particularly in an election year."
George Little, spokesman for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, told The Washington Examiner that Panetta's most recent meeting with Karzai was "productive."
Little said the pair discussed how Afghanistan could eventually be secured entirely by Afghan forces.
"About 50 percent of the country's security is now under Afghan leadership, and we share the goal of increasing that percentage," Little added.
Staying the course and allowing Afghan security forces to grow in strength appears to be the best of the options still available, anaylsts said.
Arturo Munoz, a senior analyst at RAND Corp., said "I don't see a value in a speedy withdrawal. There is a lot of anxiety about the future of the country." Munoz, formerly with the CIA, said the Taliban would call a swift withdrawal "a victory against NATO, and it would give credence to Afghan allies who warned that we would desert them."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at email@example.com.