President Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan highlights the intractable problem: The United States has no good options.
Afghanistan is a poor, failed state but sits at a key crossroads in Asia. Unlike Somalia, Sudan or other failed states that have served as havens for violent Islamic extremism, Afghanistan sits next to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
We're in Afghanistan, Obama said Tuesday night, to stop the spread of what he described as the "cancer" of violent extremism. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put the issue more bluntly Wednesday in testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee: While a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan itself may not be a direct threat to the United States, every small success serves as a propaganda victory for al-Qaida, strengthening "extremist mythology" and recruitment worldwide.
This cancer analogy is Obama's version of the "domino theory" of the Vietnam War era – with all the same pitfalls in turning small threats into big ones.
So what does Obama propose? He plans a surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, bringing U.S. troop strength to 100,000. But he is limiting U.S. goals. Obama wants to "break the Taliban's momentum" – weaken it to levels that are manageable by the Afghans – and begin to scale back by July 2011.
This is a high-risk strategy, but it recognizes key issues.
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