In the coming weeks, President Barack Obama will make the most difficult choice a commander in chief can face: whether to send more troops into harm's way.
The challenge of making the right decision was dramatized recently by the grim disclosure that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has warned that unless he gets more troops the eight-year war there "will likely result in failure."
The general provided a bleak catalogue of misaligned military operations, a corrupt Afghan government, and an increasingly lethal insurgency. He wants more troops and civilians to execute a nation-building counterinsurgency strategy that he hopes will reverse the slide. He says success is still achievable. As the commander on the ground, Gen. McChrystal fulfilled his assignment from the president, producing a tightly reasoned blueprint for a complex and increasingly dangerous conflict.
Now, we in Congress have our own assignment: to test all of the underlying assumptions in Afghanistan and make sure they are the right ones before embarking on a new strategy.
For example, one assumption of the proposed counterinsurgency plan is that our troops and civilians will be working in partnership with a legitimate and reliable government in Afghanistan. After the deeply flawed presidential election last month, we must ask whether we can succeed if our partner is weak and viewed with deep suspicion by his own people.
We also need to know whether a full-blown counterinsurgency, with its increased footprint and inevitably higher casualties, is a fundamental part of our plans to go after al Qaeda and avoid destabilizing Pakistan. Could a far smaller, well-honed counterterrorism strategy work as well or better?
Some have argued that counterterrorism commandos and sophisticated surveillance might be effective at targeting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But critics contend that a counterterrorism campaign can succeed only as a component within a larger counterinsurgency.