Twice on Sunday morning – and many times before that – America's top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, was asked point blank whether the United States is going to send more troops to Afghanistan. Twice, he refused to give a definitive answer.
The answer appears clear. A variety of media reports have suggested that the new US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, will ask for more troops, perhaps within the coming month. Moreover, Mullen himself said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday that the situation in Afghanistan was "serious and deteriorating."
To be sure, any request for more troops will be met with frustration and perhaps even rebellion from Congress. It will also add to the strain on US forces. Yet there are other considerations behind Mullen's apparent coyness.
Given that this October will mark the eighth anniversary of American involvement in Afghanistan, that might appear a shocking statement. But Mullen intimated why, despite billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost, the past eight years have brought the US no closer to its goal of a stable Afghanistan that can deny Al Qaeda refuge.
The reason: America has never before had a plan – or the resources – to do what must be done. Mullen put it this way: "This is the first time we've really resourced a strategy on both the civilian and military side."
Mullen would be foolish to make any promises to anyone about troop levels before the process begun this spring gives him all the information he needs.
The fact is, the number of troops the US deploys will likely be far less important than how they are deployed. If Iraq was the Pentagon's refresher course on the complexities of counterinsurgency, then Afghanistan will have to be its doctorate.
Tens of thousands more US troops, simply thrown into the fray, guns blazing, would be the death knell for American hopes in Afghanistan – simply intensifying the violence to no clear end. But tens of thousands of troops deployed to protect key population centers, to target opium networks, to work with local tribal elders, to root out corrupt government officials and programs – these could, at least potentially, have a transformative impact.
The task is enormous and the timing is urgent, with both Afghans and Americans growing weary of a stuttering effort.
Mullen, the Pentagon, and the Obama administration probably know they have only one more shot at righting Afghanistan on their watch. They must be sure they get it right.