The war in Afghanistan has been nearly invisible to the American public since its initial combat phase ended in early 2002, but it has rapidly come once again into view. Indeed, the war is now poised to become perhaps the most controversial and divisive issue in U.S. defense policy.
Managing this war will pose difficult problems both in Afghanistan and here at home. The strategic case for waging war is stronger than that for disengaging, but not by much: The war is a close call on the merits. The stakes for the United States are largely indirect; it will be an expensive war to wage; like most wars, its outcome is uncertain; even success is unlikely to yield a modern, prosperous Switzerland of the Hindu Kush; and as a counterinsurgency campaign its conduct is likely to increase losses and violence in the short term in exchange for a chance at stability in the longer term.
But failure is not inevitable. The U.S. military is now a far more capable counterinsurgency force than the Soviets who lost to the mujaheddin in the 1980s; the Obama Administration is committed to reforming a corrupt government in Kabul that the Bush Administration mostly accepted; and perhaps most important, the United States has the advantage of a deeply flawed enemy in the Taliban. The stakes, moreover, are important even though indirect: Failure could have grave consequences for the United States.
On balance, then, reinforcement is a better bet than withdrawal. But neither option is unassailable, and if presented with all costs and benefits appended, neither looks very appealingâ€”and that will make for very contentious politics in the United States.