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U.S. has promises to keep in Afghanistan

In the media and in conversations anywhere people gather, all sorts of compelling arguments are being made against the United States deepening its military commitment in Afghanistan. But somehow they're not quite compelling enough.

You've heard them by now. They include:

"We don't need another Vietnam."

"The U.S. can't solve all the world's problems."

"We have enough to deal with at home with the economy on the skids."

"Those people have been fighting tribal wars since time immemorial. Their country is ungovernable."

We're hearing these arguments more and more now that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, has made a bold pitch to the Obama administration for a new "surge" to put down terror attacks in that country.

In McChrystal's view, recommitting to the long process of nation building is the only path to follow. He argues that without 40,000 more U.S. troops, and stepped-up training of Afghan police and military, the U.S. mission there will fail. And that failure will be on President Obama.

That puts the president in a dilemma. Obama views the U.S. role in Afghanistan largely as McChrystal does. But if he ramps up forces and the Afghans fail to uphold their end of the deal, he risks entrapping the United States for perhaps another decade in a mission it cannot possibly accomplish.

Critics are salivating as he ponders. Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused Obama of "dithering." More likely, he's being careful, a virtue too long absent from U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.

I hope his deliberations lead him to understand that we have no alternative other than helping build a strong, credible government in Afghanistan. If we do not, we will almost certainly leave the nation to the extremists who harbored terrorists in the past. That would be bad for our domestic security. And it would be yet another American betrayal of the Afghans. Quite simply, we owe these people.

The United States has cut and run there once before, after aiding the Afghans in defeating the Soviets. Then we conveniently left the shattered country to its own devices, helping to create the vacuum that the Taliban arose to fill.

The United States has been more than a little complicit in the rise of some of the terrorist groups that now afflict the world — largely by failing to do the right thing in Afghanistan. Now is our second chance.

A reliable touchstone on the Afghanistan quandary is a professor in Omaha, Neb. Thomas Gouttierre heads the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska. Gouttierre is the leading American scholar of Afghanistan, and the U.S. military is tapping him for advice. The center has been hired by the U.S. government to help improve literacy in the Afghan military, as well as to train U.S. military commanders in three-week immersion seminars on the culture of Afghanistan.

I spoke to him again earlier this month, after he returned from a two-week visit to Kabul, having talked with our military and Afghan officials.

Bailing yet again from Afghanistan will only exacerbate the country's problems, he said. He echoed the question he posed after Sept. 11, when U.S. policy was driven by a rage for revenge. "Once we drive (al-Qaida) out (of Afghanistan), how do we keep them from coming back?"

To Gouttiere, the answer is to help the Afghans stabilize their country. Hire Afghans — not foreign contract workers — to rebuild their roads and other infrastructure. Help them get back a country they are willing to protect from the Taliban.

Continued U.S. attention is also about loyalty repaid. Many Afghans have risked their lives and the lives of their families to help the U.S. military. Leaving now would be a death sentence to those people, Gouttiere says.

He acknowledges that the United States will have to evacuate eventually. But for now, he says, "we should stay there so that we do things correctly."

History, after all, is unlikely to offer a third chance.