Ask us in 10 years whether recent events in Afghanistan and Pakistan should have told us that President Obama's decision to boost American troop strength in the region was a bold stroke or the first step into an unending quagmire.
Right now, it could be either. But whether the order to add 17,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to the existing contingent of 30,000 turns out to be a good idea or a bad one, there is little doubt that things could not go on the way they are.
Even as the United States and its allied Afghan government lose popular support in that nation's countryside, through events that have caused increased bickering between our government and theirs, the very Taliban forces that we ousted from Kabul have won an accommodation with the Pakistani government that effectively gives them control of the battle-scarred Swat Valley.
News reports in recent days have been unendingly discouraging.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has let it be known that he is a bit miffed that he has not yet spoken with American President Obama, even as his government depends on ours for its very existence and as Obama has repeatedly, and accurately, described his region as the key to the battle against Islamic extremism.
The United Nations, meanwhile, reports that civilian casualties in Afghanistan are up over last year and, at 2,118 in 2008, have reached their highest level since the American-led ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001. Just about every week brings a new report of an American military strike aimed at Taliban or al-Qaida forces that also, or instead, left innocent civilians, including children, dead.
That trend, along with the real or perceived corruption of the Afghan government, has not only emboldened the Taliban, but also handed power back to the various warlords whose loyalty can change with the winds.
But the worst news may have come from Pakistan. There the national and provincial governments announced a deal with Taliban militants effectively giving the extremists control not just of the ungoverned mountains but also of the relatively civilized Swat Valley.
The deal allows the imposition of Islamic law, which may or may not mean a ban on the education of girls and the return of other policies unacceptable to the modern world, and promises that the Pakistani army will end its efforts to root out the militants' strongholds.
The situation clearly presents military problems that could call for a military response. But such a response that isn't better planned, better coordinated, better managed, just plain better aimed, stands only to make things worse in the so-called 'stans.
Obama correctly said recently that the troop build-up comes with the understanding that the spread of Taliban-style terror cannot be stopped through military action alone. The president has sent high-level diplomats to the area and has his people reviewing every aspect of the situation.
The problem with life, the sage said, is that it is understood backward but must be lived forward. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States must look forward, very carefully indeed.