President Barack Obama has decided to add 17,000 troops to America's forces fighting terrorism in Afghanistan - a relatively modest increase that falls short of the 30,000 reinforcements discussed by military planners earlier this year as concerns have grown about the increasingly violent struggle there with Taliban forces and al-Qaida terrorists.
Limiting the number of U.S. troops being placed in harm's way is appropriate at this time because the president has yet to clearly lay out the administration's plans and goals for the American effort in Afghanistan and a likely exit strategy should we fail to obtain them.
We need to ask: After seven years of war, what will more troops help us achieve in Afghanistan? Is there a danger that a heavier military footprint will further alienate the Afghan public, and if so, what are the alternatives? And - with the lessons of Iraq in mind -- will this approach advance our top national security priority, namely, defeating al-Qaida?
Regardless of how many troops are sent, there appears to be no military solution to Afghanistan's problems. Unless the U.S. and its allies promote and help build a stronger Afghan government, work to root out corruption, offer economic alternatives to the country's narcotics trade and step up development and reconstruction projects, Afghanistan will probably continue its downward trajectory.
Mr. Obama should enlist our United Nations allies in these shared goals and make it clear to the Afghan government that serious reforms are necessary. It's a difficult proposition because President Hamid Karzai has become increasingly isolated in this fledgling democracy. The establishment of the rule of law and strong civil institutions is critical. Otherwise, Afghanistan may end up being devoured by parasitic warlords who hold sway over key ministries and impede critical reforms.
When all that must be accomplished is considered, it's clear that rescuing Afghanistan from collapse will be a challenging and expensive proposition with no certainty of success.
A U.S. force of 60,000 in Afghanistan would cost about $70 billion a year with no guarantee of military success. Providing economic aid and building a reliable Afghan army are likely to cost many billions more. The Russians failed to prevail there with a much larger military force and shorter supply lines. We can only succeed if we push hard to achieve social and economic reforms.
Some experts argue that just getting out and allowing the Taliban to win a subsequent civil war wouldn't be a bad outcome if the Taliban could be persuaded to break with al-Qaida and keep it from setting up terrorist training bases on Afghan territory. But a resurgent Taliban could seriously threaten the fragile Pakistan government, leaving control of its nuclear weapons in doubt.
Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, now President Obama's national security adviser, headed up two recent studies of the challenge presented by Afghanistan. His conclusion: America cannot afford to lose. The dilemma facing President Obama is finding an affordable way to win.