There are no shortcuts to accomplish the task before the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration needs to make a strong case to the American public for a long-term commitment to both countries.
It also must be clear that an increased military presence in Afghanistan and strategic cooperation with Pakistan are only marginally about destroying al-Qaeda. While some in Congress may demand that we identify clear goals such as defeating terrorism, the stakes are far greater.
In the unlikely case that al-Qaeda's organizational strength is significantly diminished in the near future, Taliban insurgencies could well rage on in both countries, threatening their security and stability, as well as wider U.S. interests. Hence, it's of paramount importance that the Obama administration encourage public support for diplomatic, economic, and military engagement in the region until Afghanistan and Pakistan can stand up to attacks on their fragile democracies.
Some in Washington are calling for compromise with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan as an exit strategy. But the recent unhappy experience of Pakistan's negotiation with the Taliban in the Swat region should make it evident that there is no compromising with extremists determined to humiliate the West and impose their harsh version of governance.
The United States cannot accept the reemergence of a Taliban regime in Afghanistan any more than it can allow extremist influence to spread in Pakistan. Not only would we lose two strategic allies, but half the population of both countries - the women - would lose their basic rights.
The Obama administration is correct that the fight cannot be won by the military alone. Extremist groups in Pakistan appeal to an impoverished, repressed population by wrapping themselves in the mantles of nationalism, religion, and anti-Americanism. Our most effective weapons in both countries are aid programs that address the human and social needs of the people.
Some are questioning federal legislation that would provide $7.5 billion in economic aid to Pakistan and more civilian aid to Afghanistan. But there are few better options for countering extremism and bolstering the weak civilian governments in Kabul and Islamabad.
If we opt for a short-term military strategy and leave prematurely, the ramifications could be significant. A Taliban win would almost certainly give terrorists more room to train and launch attacks. Less understood, but equally likely, is the possibility of a civil war like the one that wracked Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Hundreds of new refugees could be expected to stream out of Afghanistan, most headed for a fragile Pakistan. Islamabad might enjoy a sphere of influence across its western border, but this would be offset by a blowback that would energize the insurgency in Pakistan. That ultimately would put the country's large nuclear arsenal at risk.
Increased radicalization in Pakistan poses other dangers. It would doom any rapprochement with India, increasing the risk of armed and even nuclear conflict between the two countries. And if the United States does not adequately come to the defense of its allies in Kabul and Islamabad, India may start to doubt its reliability as a strategic partner. Governments across much of the Muslim world would question American resolve in the region, and terrorists would crow about their victory.
As more U.S. troops arrive in Afghanistan this summer, they will face ever greater risks. Understandably, Americans will question the cost of our commitment to both countries - all the more reason for the Obama administration to explain to Americans that our military and economic involvement relate directly to our security.
To the people of Afghanistan, we must make clear that our troops will stay only as long as it takes to assure stability. There is a military exit strategy for Afghanistan, but it must be tied to progress in helping it become strong enough to stand up to a terrorist-linked insurgency. For that, there can be no deadlines or timetables.
To the Pakistanis, we must underscore that our aid and diplomacy are directed toward the people, not helping the army fight our narrow battle against terrorism. The best way to help Pakistan's military resist militant extremists is to help Islamabad undertake long-overdue economic and political reforms.
In both countries, long-term U.S. aid aimed at security, economic development, and governance can build trust while fighting terrorism.