Then again, understanding a situation doesn't necessarily lead to making wise choices or even knowing for certain just what the wise choices are. The administration has still not decided what those "benchmarks" of success and failure should be. In an especially troubling moment, Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was asked by a reporter to define success and replied, "We'll know it when we see it."
Those 17,000 extra troops that Obama approved in the spring represented a middle course between his advisers' conflicting options. All of these advisers agreed that some reinforcements were needed, if just to shore up Afghan security before and during the August election; and 17,000 was the number of troops available, given the start of the drawdown from Iraq. Once the election is decided, Obama will face another decision over what to do next.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has reportedly concluded that, in the face of growing Taliban resistance, still more troops are needed as quickly as possible. Yet Obama's first round of reinforcements have just barely settled, and an additional 4,000 troops—the 4th Brigade of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which were sent not to fight the Taliban directly but simply to train the Afghan army—aren't scheduled to arrive until next month.
Gen. James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, warned a group of his fellow generals in a meeting last June—around the same time that Obama himself was meeting with Caro and the other historians—not to push the president into escalation. He'd given them all the troops they wanted in the first round of decision-making: If the generals came back with a request for more, they might face, as Jones put it, a "whiskey-tango-foxtrot" situation. (That is, Obama might react by thinking, to employ another euphemism, "WTF?!" and to view the recommendation, and all subsequent advice from the military, as suspect.)
Obama has committed the United States to some form of involvement in Afghanistan—he's called it a "necessary war," after all—he hasn't quite yet boxed himself in to drastic or rapid escalation. His next move will, and should, depend on what the next Afghan president does.