The United States has two compelling interests at issue in the Afghan conflict. One is the ongoing, increasingly successful but incomplete effort to reduce the threat posed by al Qaeda and related jihadi groups, and to finally eliminate the al Qaeda leadership that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. The second is the pursuit of a South and Central Asian region that is at least stable enough to ensure that Pakistan does not fail completely as a state or fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
More than that may well be achievable. In my view, most current American commentary underestimates the potential for transformational changes in South Asia over the next decade or two, spurred by economic progress and integration. But there is no question that the immediate policy choices facing the United States in Afghanistan are very difficult. All of the courses of action now under consideration by the Obama administration and members of Congress carry with them risk and uncertainty.
To protect the security of the American people and the interests of the United States and its allies, we should persist with the difficult effort to stabilize Afghanistan and reverse the Taliban's momentum. This will probably require additional troops for a period of several years, until Afghan forces can play the leading role.
However, that depends on the answer to Gen. Colin Powell's reported question, "What will more troops do?" As Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote in his recent assessment, "Focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely." Instead -- after years of neglect of U.S. policy and resources in Afghanistan and after a succession of failed strategies both in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the United States, as McChrystal put it, has an "urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate." While I cannot endorse or oppose McChyrstal's specific prescriptions for the next phase of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan because I do not know what they are, I do endorse the starting point of his analysis, as well as his general emphases on partnering with Afghan forces and focusing on the needs of the Afghan population. I believe those emphases are necessary but insufficient.
Whether President Obama's policy involves no new troops, a relatively small number of additional forces focused on training, or a much larger deployment, we can be certain of one thing: American soldiers will continue to put their lives on the line in Afghanistan and the U.S. Treasury will continue to be drained in pursuit of U.S. goals there. We know this because President Obama has publicly ruled out withdrawal from Afghanistan as an option. Instead, within the administration and prospectively in Congress, the question seems to be whether to pursue U.S. goals with the resources already invested, or to invest more in tandem with the adoption of a new strategy. It is important, then, to think through what U.S. interests in Afghanistan actually are and what means may be required to achieve them.