So its new strategy, which President Barack Obama plans to announce Friday at the White House, is a careful middle course that seeks to avoid both of these unacceptable outcomes.
It keeps the U.S. committed but not too committed.
It doesn’t promise fast results or sweeping achievements, like defeating the Taliban insurgency or quickly bringing security to the Afghan people.
It seeks to draw allies into the effort but doesn’t greatly expand the U.S. footprint, though Obama will announce he is sending 4,000 more troops, several hundred civilian reconstruction experts, and $1.5 billion in additional economic aid to Pakistan.
And it will contain benchmarks that give Obama a chance to review the strategy at regular intervals to decide whether it is working.
The question that arises is whether in trying to keep the U.S. commitment limited, the White House is making it that much harder for the new strategy to work.
The main new U.S. goal is as constricted and clear-eyed as can be. It is to go after Osama bin Laden and the other remains of al-Qaida hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Everything else will be secondary.
When senior administration officials talk about when that objective might be completed, they say it will occur “eventually.” They stress, rightfully, that for reasons of politics and geography, eradicating the safe havens where al-Qaida still hides eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks will be hard and potentially long-term work.
But the militant threat in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has grown so strong that the idea the U.S. can focus largely on the problem of eliminating al-Qaida, without also making a sustained effort to stabilize Afghanistan, may not be realistic.
Similarly, even with the offer of additional U.S. aid, Pakistan’s ability to undertake the far-reaching counterinsurgency effort the U.S. is seeking in its tribal areas may take a back seat to ensuring its own stability.
It will be hard, given the risks of seeing nuclear-armed Pakistan descend further into chaos, for the Obama administration to pressure President Asif Ali Zardari too hard if the threats to his government intensify.
In truth, even the White House seems unsure if it has gotten the balance right in this new strategy. “This is a roadmap, not a strait-jacket,” said a senior administration official, stressing the importance of the benchmarks to measure progress along the way and make changes, if necessary.
Some critics contend that what is badly needed in Afghanistan is more of a classic counterinsurgency effort, one in which U.S. and Afghan troops would collaborate in an effort to protect the population, especially in the eastern and southern parts of the country where the Taliban and other militant groups are strongest.
This approach would require more U.S. troops but combined with increased effort in Pakistan, it could break the strength of the Taliban over time, leaving al-Qaida vulnerable.
The new Obama strategy recognizes this to some extent by envisioning U.S. ground troops playing a major role against the Taliban in coming months. But it’s not clear how sustained a commitment the U.S. is making, either to counterinsurgency or to defeating the Taliban.
The U.S. and Afghan government plan to pursue negotiations aimed at splitting off tribes and other elements of the movement to further reduce its strength, officials said.
And the 4,000 additional troops from the 82nd Airborne Division that Obama is sending will focus on training Afghan Army units, so they can eventually take on more of the burden of fighting the Taliban. All of this suggests that Obama sees defeating the Taliban as something the U.S. will transition away from as soon as possible.
A senior U.S. official said he White House hoped to see progress in the south and east by the fall or early winter. “The sooner the Afghan soldiers can handle the threat posed by the Taliban, the sooner you can reduce our forces,” said a senior official
But there is always the risk that the Afghans will prove incapable of standing on their own —at least on a timetable acceptable to Obama.
If progress against the safe havens along the border cannot be achieved in the next few years—or if the Taliban insurgency becomes even stronger--will Obama decide to send in more troops? Or will he draw down and resort to other means to go after al-Qaida?
The answer to those questions was not immediately clear. Senior officials say results will come because they are proving additional military and civilian resources that the Bush administration, consumed with Iraq, never sent to Afghanistan.
The Bush administration spent six years with a mismatch between objectives and resources in Iraq – and that effort only turned around late in the administration, with the decision to send additional forces and adopt a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at protecting the population. Obama is unlikely to have the same level of patience if progress is not apparent in Afghanistan.
Another major risk of the new strategy is counting on Afghanistan and Pakistan to do more than they have been willing to do until now. In Afghanistan’s case, that will include reducing corruption and on cracking down on the heroin trade. Obama called both Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to outline the new strategy. “He made it very clear that there are no blank checks here,” said a senior official.
The problem Obama faces if neither delivers is what he would do in response. He has already made clear his willingness to use unmanned drone attacks to go after al-Qaida in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But relying on drone attacks or on secret Special Forces raids has been tried for years without eradicating the problem.
Pakistan has long resisted undertaking a sustained effort to rein in the militant groups along its border, where al-Qaida leaders are said to be hiding. Obama administration officials say that Pakistan avoided dealing with the threat by characterizing the war along its border region as Bush’s war, not their own
U.S. officials have already begun trying to convince Zardari that the failure to address that threat is making his government less stable. But they admitted that the U.S. suffers from a “trust deficit” with Pakistan, which they are trying to overcome.
The White House wants Pakistan’s security services to end their long-running relationships with some militant groups and undertake counterinsurgency in their border region. The additional aid the U.S. is offering will also come with conditions aimed at forcing these changes. “There’s no guarantee, but we think it can be done,” said one senior administration official.