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Mr. Obama and Gen. Petraeus have said repeatedly that the U.S. is not planning a mass exodus in July 2011. Gen. Petraeus says all the extra U.S. troops and civilians needed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum have just arrived — and only now can Mr. Obama’s revised war strategy begin to work.

But as the war drags on, the U.S. has lowered its sites and goals. Fewer people are talking about establishing Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. Instead, the focus is on finding some way to force out al Qaeda — even if that involves a deal with Taliban members.

Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations says the Obama administration must clarify what the endgame will look like.

“Without clear limits on acceptable outcomes, the U.S. and NATO military campaign will be rudderless, as will any negotiation strategy for a settlement with the Taliban,” Mr. Biddle said.

He predicts success in Afghanistan will mean “arriving at an intermediate end state — somewhere between ideal and intolerable.”

Hovering like a shadow over the discussion is Afghanistan’s bloody history.

The Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979 but was forced to withdraw nine years later by anti-communist mujahedeen forces, who were supplied and trained by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others. These U.S.-backed rebels took power in 1992 when the pro-Moscow government collapsed.

They quickly turned their guns on each other, and a violent civil war ensued. The Taliban took advantage of the power vacuum and within two years had seized Kabul.