Can Afghanistan become another Iraq? A few years ago, that would have been a question full of foreboding. Now, it expresses an aspiration.

The Afghan War has, as any American officer will tell you, long been “under-resourced,” a word that in a counterinsurgency war is almost always a synonym for failure. While Iraq had 15 American combat brigades before the surge and 20 during it, Afghanistan was in the low single digits and will only reach six brigades with the addition of the 17,000 American troops just ordered by President Barack Obama.

An American general has a pointed formulation for the relative priority of the two wars during the past seven years: “If you needed it in Iraq, you got it; if you needed it in Afghanistan, you figured out how to do without it.” That has changed, but by how much and for how long will be defining questions for the Obama administration.

The challenges in Afghanistan bear an uncanny resemblance to those in Iraq prior to the surge – insufficient coalition force levels, making it impossible to secure the population; a population that is sitting on the fence, waiting to see whether the insurgents or the coalition has more staying power; an indigenous army that is too small, and a police force plagued by incompetence and corruption; and a weak political leader at the top who is triangulating between the coalition and its enemies and is too parochial in his outlook.

On top of all of this, Afghanistan is a broken country, shattered by the Soviets, who did their utmost to wipe out the traditional social structure, then by years of civil war. It would be a poor and ramshackle nation even without the serial catastrophes that have befallen it.

This calls for realism about what can be achieved there, but doesn’t justify ill-informed despair. Afghanistan is not about to fall to the Taliban. The capital, Kabul, can go weeks without an attack. Even with civilian casualties up 45 percent during the past year, they are still half the current level in post-surge Iraq, and Afghanistan has a larger population.

If Afghanistan is far from lost, it isn’t susceptible to quick fixes either. Scaling back our commitment to focus on only targeted strikes against high-value terrorist targets would risk a collapse of the Afghan state, imperiling the region. Reconciling with elements of the Taliban is another fantasy, since there aren’t moderate Taliban with which to reconcile.

No, the only way we can succeed in Afghanistan – i.e., create a government minimally competent and decent enough to sustain itself – is by undertaking the hard work of counterinsurgency, as we did in Iraq with the surge.

It means deploying the troops necessary to protect the population and force extremists to fight or to flee. It means continuing to build the Afghan National Army, the nation’s most respected institution. It means building governmental capacity and giving young men sources of income other than getting paid to fire rocket-propelled grenades at the coalition.

No one here underestimates the difficulty of this task, the work of years. But the implicit message from American commanders is that the Afghan War hasn’t failed, it hasn’t truly been tried. While the coalition has made painful sacrifices through the years, it hasn’t had sufficient resources to deal with an insurgency that seemed defeated in 2002-2004.

The new troops will head to areas of the south where there hasn’t been a coalition presence and where they will meet stiff resistance. The coalition casualties will give the left and the media – who have already turned on what they had long held out as the “good war” – more occasion to declare Afghanistan the latest Vietnam.

Since the effect of this wrenching work won’t be evident until next year’s fighting season, it will obviously create a political vulnerability for President Obama. He’d do well to note a crucial element of the surge in Iraq – an American president with a stomach of steel.

Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]

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