AS PRESIDENT OBAMA prepares to send 17,000 fresh troops to Afghanistan, anxieties about a Vietnam-style quagmire are rising. There are no quick victories over guerrilla forces, especially on the forbidding terrain of Afghanistan. With all the other crises confronting him, the last thing Obama needs is a war without end in Central Asia.
However, the 17,000 new troops may actually help avoid a quagmire. The long-term challenge Obama faces in Afghanistan is to prevent a Taliban takeover that would, once again, provide a safe haven in that country for Al Qaeda. The troops may help counter a spring offensive from the Taliban and its allies, so that decisions about long-range policy are not made in an atmosphere of immediate crisis. If deployed wisely, the new troops may also reduce casualties among Afghan civilians - a crucial determinant of success against the Taliban.
A related aim is to prevent extremists on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border from causing the disintegration of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
These nightmare scenarios are imaginable today because of errors by the previous administration. These include failures to funnel substantial reconstruction assistance through the government of President Hamid Karzai; to disarm warlords' militias; to create and train honest security forces able to protect civilians; and to provide Afghan farmers with sufficient incentives to get them out of the poppy-growing business.
To fix the mess, Obama will need to develop a sound counterinsurgency strategy. This does not mean trying to replicate the methods applied in Iraq. The two countries differ radically in landscape, ethnic diversity, and political history. Nonetheless, there are two generalized lessons from Iraq that can be useful for Afghanistan.
One is that any effort to roll back the Taliban must begin with effective protection of Afghan civilians. Opinion surveys and observers on the ground indicate that most Afghans abhor and fear the fanatical Taliban. But if villagers in Taliban-infested regions are not protected, they cannot resist the ruthless extremists.
A second applicable lesson from Iraq is that many of the Taliban's current allies can be peeled away from the insurgency. Local warlords, tribal leaders, and village elders can be detached from - or turned against - the Taliban by means of monetary, political, and patronage rewards.
Meanwhile, Obama must seek cooperation not only from Pakistan but from Afghanistan's other neighbors, including Iran. This won't be easy, but it is doable. There are ways to avoid an Afghan quagmire.