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Whether President Obama's timetable for considering Gen. Stanley McCrystal's request for more forces in Afghanistan is dithering, as his critics contend, or deliberate, as his supporters argue, he'll need to decide soon, especially in response to the great gains the Taliban counterinsurgency has made in the eighth year of the war. But before the president makes one of the defining foreign policy decisions of his presidency, he needs to provide the American people with answers to these essential questions:

What is America's national interest in Afghanistan? The invasion's initial justification was to topple the Taliban, which gave safe haven to Al-Qaida, the terrorists responsible for 9/11. Is our new purpose to help nation-build, and if so are we in danger of mission creep? And if we put more boots on the ground, will there be a proportionate diplomatic surge in the country and region?

What is our national interest in Pakistan? Many believe this is the real front of "the war on terror," with higher stakes, given the country's nuclear status and the likelihood that key Al-Qaida leadership, including Osama bin Laden, is hiding there. And it's impossible to talk Pakistan without considering India, its regional rival. Given both countries' unfortunate embrace of nuclear weapons, is keeping a lid on their long-simmering conflict what's ultimately most important?

Is there a legitimate Afghan government to partner with? Afghan President Hamid Karzai, recently reelected in a process so tainted that nearly one-third of the votes were deemed invalid, has reluctantly agreed to a Nov. 7 runoff vote with his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. As it stands, the stuffed ballot boxes and stuffed pockets of Karzai's cronies make the government illegitimate in most Afghan and Western eyes. While it's too late to expect a Jeffersonian democracy, can either Karzai or Abdullah create a government with a baseline of legitimacy, which is essential to the military mission? And if not, will any number of U.S. troops be able to win the hearts and minds of Afghans?

What is the strategy? After years of struggle fighting insurgents in Iraq, America now seems to have a relatively effective counterinsurgency strategy. How applicable is this template in Afghanistan, which is a fundamentally different country? And if the U.S. bolsters forces, will there be a commensurate commitment from other NATO countries? If not, is NATO truly a military alliance to fight hot wars, or just a Cold War-era diplomatic one?

How will we know if we've won? The clear, clean images most associate with winning a war happened eight years ago, when the Taliban fell and fled and relieved Afghans flooded the streets of Kabul. How will we know we've won now? For many observers, it will be the ability to turn over the mission to an Afghan army and police force. If so, what is a realistic timetable on when Afghans will be ready to fight for their own country with the same valor as U.S. service personnel?

Can we afford the resources necessary to prevail? The costs must be considered. Not just in our most important treasure, lives, but also in what our overarching national priorities are. How much more than the currently budgeted $68 billion will this cost, and how does that affect other national priorities? And what are the president and his congressional allies -- many of whom are hawks on Afghanistan but doves on raising revenues to pay for it -- willing to give up, if anything, to pay for it?

On Oct. 20, Minnesota National Guard member Spc. George W. Cauley was buried in Little Falls. Cauley, who died after insurgents attacked his vehicle with a homemade bomb, became one of more than 800 U.S. service personnel killed, including 14 in two helicopter crashes Monday, since combat began in Afghanistan in 2001.

Before sending more Americans into harm's way -- or scaling back the war effort -- the president and his military advisers must address the complex questions that will determine success or failure in Afghanistan in the years ahead. And they should expect the American people to hold them accountable for the results.