There will be no banners declaring "mission accomplished" in Afghanistan, not just because Washington has learnt to be cautious about grand statements, but because the violence will not end whether the Americans leave tomorrow or in 20 years. An initial goal to root out al Qa'eda led to a 10-year mission creep with no clear end in sight. Now the best-case scenario is a gradual handover with very tenuous - or nonexistent - security in some areas.
Even such modest goals are worth fighting for. Indeed, more so than the pie-in-the-sky stable democracy that was imagined, briefly, by some. The 2001 invasion was never going to fundamentally transform Afghanistan, or rather the quasi-independent regions that fit within its borders. Instead, there have been noticeable, localised improvements in some areas - women and girls' rights, crop substitution programmes and economic development, to name a few - and almost no change in others.
It need not be an all-or-nothing deal as foreign forces negotiate an exit. News this week, first published in The Washington Post, that the United States has accelerated direct talks with factions of the Taliban led by Mullah Muhammad Omar is, in one view, an indicator of Americans' waning commitment to a conflict that is costing them $120 billion a year.
That sentiment has grown since the death of Osama bin Laden, which 10 years ago might have qualified as a victory. After 10 years, it's hard to imagine what a clear-cut victory would like for Nato. Talks with the Taliban are not meant to extract a surrender, but to negotiate a series of mutual concessions: the release of Taliban prisoners, for example, or the formal recognition of the rights of women. Most of these points will have to be settled again between Afghans themselves.
It is also important to note that negotiations with Mullah Omar's Pakistan-based shura are not negotiations with "the Taleban" as a whole. The end game will be a patchwork of local deals and developments - from Kabul, where the federal government is slowly building institutions, to far-flung locales like the now-infamous Korengal Valley, which US forces abandoned after months of heavy fighting.
This year is expected to be the most bloody. The Taliban may lose every single encounter, but they will remain in some form - there will be no battlefield victory. At best, Nato is buying time for government, Afghan security forces and the disparate tribes and local leaders to prepare.
It will not be the Americans who determine Afghanistan's fate. Amid the mix of regional and local forces, the best that can be asked is that, in as many places as possible, they leave Afghans better off than they were.