Updated: Aug. 7, 2011.
In July 2010, when General David Petraeus assumed command of both U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as the NATO mission in Afghanistan is known, he repeatedly stressed that the military and civilian sides would work closely together as "one team with one mission." This was not idle cheerleading. Petraeus was trying to send a signal that the military would mend fences with the embassy headed by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry after the relationship had been strained by a series of internal and external political and military crises, the most infamous of which was the firing of Petraeus' predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal.
Now, 13 months later, it is apparent that Petraeus' pledge has gone unfulfilled. During the handover from Eikenberry to Ambassador Ryan Crocker last week and from Petraeus to Lieut. General John Allen the week before, the two new leaders made similar statements, each focusing on the transition to Afghan security forces and reassuring Afghan officials that they are not being abandoned. "It is a time for us to step back and for the Afghans to step forward, as they're doing," said Crocker, who added that "we must proceed carefully. There will be no rush for the exits." Allen said he will "continue to support, in every way possible, the recruiting, the training, the preparation and the equipping and the fielding and employment of Afghan national security forces," but he noted that "there will be tough days ahead."
Update: Indeed, on Saturday, the U.S. suffered its deadliest day in the decadelong war when a CH-47 Chinook was shot down, most likely by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade, killing about two dozen U.S. Navy SEALs, five other American personnel and Afghan soldiers.
Crocker and Allen's statements echoed Petraeus' from a year ago. And in reality, little is likely to change. "Crocker has some credibility and may have a marginal impact, but for the foreseeable future, everything happening on the ground in Afghanistan is an ISAF-driven show," says Doug MacGregor, a retired colonel who is a leading critic of counterinsurgency theory. "In a way, I think anyone besides Eikenberry and Petraeus would be better. Crocker and Allen are both strong candidates to take the reins, but I worry their arrival comes far too late in the game to have more than a peripheral impact on the situation," says Joshua Foust, a prolific blogger on Registan.net and a fellow at the American Security Project.
Yet Afghans see that a page has been turned and that some of the damage that has been done may be repaired. "This is the best opportunity, because we have new people coming in and a new chapter. So why not fix those mistakes that we have repeatedly had in the past 10 years?" says Barry Salaam, head of the Good Morning Afghanistan radio network. There might be some hope. "Crocker is a consummate diplomat, so he will hopefully help mend some of the fences that have been broken over the past two years," says Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corp. and a professor at Georgetown University.
However, with the 2014 withdrawal around the corner, pressure will continue to mount on Crocker and Allen to improve both the Afghan civilian and military sides of the equation. "Whatever we do in terms of the military it doesn't matter how big the Afghan National Army will become if by 2014 we don't have a functioning government, then it will be very difficult for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan. This will introduce chaos back into the country," Mohammad Haroun Mir, an analyst and former aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, tells TIME.
"There are enormous challenges that any ambassador, whether it's Crocker or any other, will face coming into this game, not the least of which is that the calendar is working against him and the clock is ticking down. I think the race to the exit has become almost frenetic in its proportions," says a foreign analyst in Afghanistan. "This transition process is nothing more than cosmetic. That should be clear to everyone. It doesn't really matter what kind of window dressing you put on it or which superstars you hire to roll it out. This policy is a failure, not the people necessarily."
In the end, everyone TIME interviewed for this story agreed that things are bad and only going to get worse. "Petraeus and Eikenberry are going out the door, talking up their accomplishments, when you know from looking at the news every single day that Afghanistan doesn't have a functioning government, it doesn't have a functioning parliament, it doesn't have a functioning financial system, and it has a duplicitous security force," says another foreign analyst working in Afghanistan. "The situation here is toxic and unraveling. And that's what Allen and Crocker are going to inherit. Transition is simply a code word for managing defeat and retreat. It's just a matter of how we put a domestic political wrapper around it so it doesn't look like defeat and retreat."