All wars of choice are risky, and Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan is no exception. The president is banking on the idea that doing more for 18 months will make it possible to do less in the long run.
More specifically, he is betting that a surge in U.S. troop numbers and operations will set the Taliban on its heels and give the Afghan government and friendly regional authorities the time and space they need to hold off the Taliban on their own. A policy of counter-insurgency is wrapped in a larger policy of nation-building.
There is, of course, no way of knowing that by the summer of 2011 it will be possible to dial down the U.S. troop presence and not see the situation on the ground unravel. The choices then would be to stay longer, to increase U.S. force levels, or to reduce the U.S. presence and role even though our Afghan partner is not ready to take our place.
The first two options would raise the costs to the United States; the latter option would place U.S. interests in Afghanistan at risk. But one can question the President's view that these interests are vital. Afghanistan is no longer home to al-Qaeda (Pakistan is) and al-Qaeda doesn't need Afghan territory to be a threat. Nor is it certain the Taliban would invite al-Qaeda back in if it had the chance.
It is equally debatable whether what happens in Afghanistan will be critical to its far more important neighbor Pakistan. What happens in Pakistan will decide that country's future, and we do not know whether the government there will prove willing and able to tackle the threats that have grown up inside its borders.
Mr. Obama is working to persuade the American people that our interests in Afghanistan are worth sacrificing for, while he places a ceiling on what the United States is prepared to do and for how long.
Therein lies the dilemma, and like all dilemmas, it can only be managed, not resolved.
Originally published on CFR.com.