ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - As President Obama prepares to lay out his much-awaited strategy for Afghanistan tonight, all options look dicey.
But after three weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan talking to top U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani military and civilian officials, I've decided there is one least-bad option - the only one that could let us exit Afghanistan in three to five years without disaster. That is a temporary surge of about 40,000 troops along the lines laid out by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in his report to the president.
I start from the premise, affirmed by top South Asia experts, that to leave Afghanistan now would be a serious strategic error. The Afghan Taliban would seize large chunks of the country, which would sink back into civil war, with neighbors such as Iran, Russia, and Pakistan backing different factions.
Afghan militants would be seen as having defeated NATO (as they did the Soviet Union). Afghanistan would again become a haven for radical jihadis seeking to attack the West or to destabilize Pakistan and get their hands on its nuclear weapons.
"If the United States pulls out of Afghanistan precipitously, without ensuring the security of the population there, it will be committing a crime of unparalleled proportions, not only against Afghanistan, but against Pakistan," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a distinguished Pakistani physicist and security analyst. I agree.
Yet standing still is not a viable option, either: At present troop levels, NATO is losing ground. Most Afghans don't want the Taliban back, but the militants make gains by providing rough stability and jobs, which the weak central government has not.
The Taliban also make headway by intimidating Afghans, who are afraid to resist because they think the militants are winning. In Kabul today, many believe that the Taliban have unshakable momentum, and that neither NATO nor the Afghan government has the will to stop them.
The primary goals of a troop surge would be to reverse that momentum, and to move Afghanistan toward a level of stability that its leaders could sustain with limited help from NATO.
How to do this? McChrystal understands that an insurgency can't be defeated by military means alone; more troops would make it possible to funnel more economic aid to troubled regions and intensify training of Afghan security forces. A surge would also facilitate efforts to woo low- and mid-level Taliban to come in from the cold.
The new troops would even improve the chances for a negotiated peace between Afghan leaders and top Taliban leaders who break with al-Qaeda. But such peace negotiations won't make headway as long as the Taliban believe they are winning and only need to wait for a NATO exit.
How would the new troops be used? McChrystal would concentrate substantial numbers in the south of Afghanistan and some additional troops in the east, both Taliban havens. This could stabilize the situation sufficiently to pour in development funds and offer substitutes for poppy-growing, demonstrating a better alternative to Taliban rule.
More stability would enable civilian aid officials to do an end run around the problematic central government headed by President Hamid Karzai. Funds could be funneled directly through good provincial governors, and good cabinet ministers in key areas such as agriculture and rural development, irrespective of Karzai's performance. Stability in some provinces would help promote reform at the center.
A solidified NATO commitment would also encourage Afghans to do more of their own fighting. In some areas, special-forces teams would work with tribes that oppose the Taliban but were reluctant to fight because NATO support was uncertain. In other areas, villagers will be more willing to set up self-defense forces if NATO troops back them up.
A surge would also include thousands of new trainers to speed the development of the Afghan national army. This army is far from ready to take over in a violent environment; more U.S. troops would buy it time to develop in a more stable situation.
In short, an influx of U.S. troops would give us a shot at creating enough stability in Afghanistan to neutralize Taliban gains, develop local security forces, and move toward a peace settlement endorsed by the country's neighbors. At that point, most NATO troops could leave, with the exception of trainers and advisers.
While some believe we should leave Afghanistan and focus on securing Pakistan, I don't think the latter is possible unless we secure the former. Pakistan is already skittish about new U.S. aid or any increase in the number of American advisers.
If Pakistani military officials think we are quitting Afghanistan, they will support a takeover by their old allies, the Afghan Taliban; they believe these militants would be the most Pakistan-friendly and anti-India in a chaotic, post-NATO Afghanistan. The only chance to get the Pakistani brass to squeeze the Afghan Taliban is if they believe NATO is determined to stabilize Afghanistan.
Achieving such a goal will be difficult, but not impossible, and the alternatives are far more disturbing.
"I want the Americans to get out of Afghanistan, but at a pace that ensures some kind of future for that country," Professor Hoodbhoy told me in a voice filled with emotion. That sounds like a reasonable aim to me.