More and more, it looks as though President Barack Obama is going to adopt a "split the difference" policy on Afghanistan that will basically continue current strategy — and likely lead to catastrophe.
Obama told congressional leaders Tuesday that he does not intend to reduce U.S. troop levels, but he described his war aims strictly in terms of "targeting Al Qaeda," not defeating its Taliban allies.
What I've been hearing for weeks is that he intends to complete his planned deployment of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan — then hold at that level — and reject his military commanders' call for up to 40,000 additional troops.
This presumably would satisfy his fellow Democrats, who adamantly oppose the "surge" recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, without openly signaling that he intends to retreat from Afghanistan.
When he unveils the strategy, it likely will be gussied up with declarations that the United States will step up civilian aid, anticorruption activities, training of Afghan forces and measures to destroy terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The problem with this "counterterrorism" strategy is that, with a few new wrinkles, it's a continuation of what's going on at present — ironically, the policy that he inherited from former President George W. Bush.
And this policy is plainly losing Afghanistan to the Taliban and increasing the likelihood that Afghanistan could once again become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and Taliban operations against Pakistan.
McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is urgently arguing for a change in strategy to "counterinsurgency" — the protect-the-population policy that saved Iraq from disaster — and insists the shift will require more forces.
As he wrote in his leaked Aug. 30 report, "Our campaign in Afghanistan has been historically under-resourced and remains so today. Almost every aspect of our collective effort and associated resources has lagged a growing insurgency — historically, a recipe for failure in counter-insurgency.
"Success will require a discrete 'jump' to gain the initiative, demonstrate progress in the short term and secure long-term support. Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it."
Arrayed against McChrystal's recommendation are many of the same figures who opposed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq recommended and successfully carried out by Gen. David Petraeus, now commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and McChrystal's immediate superior.
The surge foes — proved decisively wrong — include Vice President Joseph Biden, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and National Security Adviser James Jones.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also opposed the Iraq surge, but now they're in different positions, with Clinton apparently supporting more troops to protect stepped-up civilian aid to the Afghan population.
Obama is right to be meticulously reviewing the options. Bush for too long followed the flawed advice of his military commanders and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
What counts, however, is deciding on the right strategy and being willing to give it adequate resources. Obama's political advisers, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, undoubtedly are warning him that he risks becoming "another Lyndon Johnson," who became entrapped in Vietnam and lost his ambitious domestic agenda.
But Afghanistan, difficult as it is, is not Vietnam, where the enemy had a secure sanctuary and popular support. Pakistan is attacking Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries in its territory, and the Taliban basically rules by fear.
Nor is Afghanistan necessarily "the graveyard of empires." Britain and the Soviet Union sought to occupy and exploit the country. McChrystal's policy is to offer security, good governance and economic opportunity to the population.
But the United States has a deficit of trust in the region. As Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told National Public Radio this week, after Pakistan helped the United States push the Soviets out of Afghanistan: "(The U.S.) left. You abandoned us."
Similarly, McChrystal recounted last week assuring an Afghan villager that the U.S. intended to remain and provide security.
"He looked at me and said, 'OK, but you did not stay the last time,'" which led to civil war, the Taliban takeover and a base for Al Qaeda.
Obama is not going to openly abandon Afghanistan, which he describes as "a war of necessity, not choice," but he may not provide enough troops to defeat the Taliban.
As Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a reserve Naval intelligence officer, puts it, "A cruise-control policy will end up in a long, bloody holding action. And democracies are not into long, bloody holding actions. We are into 'victory or pull out.'
"We have been in this for eight years. If you put this mission on cruise control, people will lose faith in it, even the military will lose faith in it, and that leads to defeat," he said.
(Kirk, an early backer of Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, also told me that he would gladly take part in a movement to draft Petraeus for the 2012 Republican nomination.)
Another expert supporter of McChrystal's policy, Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon, said he, too, worries that continuing "counterterror" policy will lead to defeat in Afghanistan and threaten Pakistan.
"But I'd put it more positively. We potentially have a chance to put these suckers on the run for once.
"The Pakistanis are doing a serious job on their side of the border, and we are halfway toward the needed buildup on 'our' side.
"(The Taliban and Al Qaeda) are finally going to be on the defensive for the first time in half a decade instead of continually being on the offensive. So why would you want to give them an escape valve?"
It's a tough choice that Obama faces, abandoning the force-averse Democratic base. But his choice is winning or losing Afghanistan and Pakistan — and splitting the difference won't win.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)