THE ELIMINATION of Osama bin Laden should encourage us to pause and reassess the Afghanistan situation, in particular, and our anti-terrorism strategy, in general. So far, our goal in Afghanistan has been to defend the regime of President Hamid Karzai against the Taliban insurrection. What now?

If we persist, we pay the cost in terms of dollars, lives and a military capability that is so overcommitted that it is unable to respond to contingencies that threaten vital U.S. interests. If we significantly reduce our military presence, we risk the emergence of Afghanistan as a fundamentalist pro-terror nation.

Neither of these options is desirable. We are involved in a lose-lose situation and that is probably why President Barack Obama vacillates between an unattractive policy of withdrawal and the maintenance of an undesirable strategy that has been costly and unsuccessful.

How can we deal with a seemingly lose-lose situation? A rational solution to an unsolvable problem is to redefine the problem. Some of our most successful strategic decisions have been a result of doing just that.

When the Soviets and the Chinese acquired nuclear weapons we were confronted with the problem that we might win a nuclear war and at the same time destroy the planet. So, we decided that the problem was not coming up with a war-winning strategy. It was coming up with a war-prevention strategy, a strategy of deterrence. Success!

When we were confronted with the threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba our military leaders perceived the problem in military terms. President John F. Kennedy, however, realized that an attempt to use military power to take out the missiles would risk the start of World War III. So he redefined the problem in terms of negotiation and diplomacy. Mission accomplished!

During the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur saw the problem as a worldwide expansion of communist power. He wanted to take out installations across the Yalu River in China, and use nuclear weapons to neutralize a Chinese threat. President Harry S. Truman realized that this would involve the risk of Soviet involvement and an escalation to thermonuclear warfare. So he redefined the problem as the need to guarantee the territorial integrity of the South Korean regime. Goal achieved!

How might we redefine the Afghanistan problem?

The fundamental problem is not regime stability in Afghanistan. It is international terrorism. Of course, the two are related. However, if we devote limited resources to the trees we may never reap the benefit of a healthy forest.

Some channels for new thinking might be:

  • Consider the problem to be one of criminal justice. Make sure that our laws and the laws of our friends, as well as our actions, are designed to capture and punish criminals rather than adjust balance of power between Western and Islamic civilizations.

  • Let the Karzai regime, as well as that of Pakistan, know that they need to work out their own problems, perhaps with the United States cheering them on, but without them being dependent on our military and economic assistance, without us being dependent on them, hostages to their willingness to act as our clients.

  • Redirect military spending (as desired by the secretary of defense) to less-expensive tools that are appropriate to a war on terror by eliminating programs such as the F-35 fighter aircraft and the M1 Abrams tank.

    None of these ways of redefining the problem is guaranteed to result in success. All of these suggest that our real problem may be the inability or unwillingness to think and act creatively when we are squeezed between the rock of 21st Century reality and the hard place of the limits of military power.

    Stephen B. Sloane, Ph.D, is a professor of politics at Saint Mary's College in Moraga. He is also the author of "Gold Stripe on a Jackass," a description of his 30-year naval career.