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An Endstate Strategy in Afghanistan, Not Exit Strategy

08/14/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

On June 25th, 131 Democrats, and 7 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to require the Obama administration provide Congress "a report outlining the United States exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan." It is entirely appropriate that many members want to ensure the new administration has both developed the right plan for Afghanistan and begun implementing it since Afghanistan remains central to our national security interests. However, we therefore need to focus on an endstate strategy that will allow us to withdraw once we have achieved our goals, rather than an exit strategy.

Because the Iraq War was a bungled distraction, not a national security imperative like Afghanistan, pushing for an exit strategy from Iraq was an appropriate course for progressive groups and the country. However, as Representative Barney Frank said in late 2006, we should have been focusing on "capturing Osama bin Laden. He is not in Iraq. He is in the Afghan-Pakistan area. That's where the fight ought to be."

The difference is important. Exit strategy implies that the top military priority is getting our troops out. An endstate strategy however, envisions what we want the conditions on the ground to look like and figures out how to get there. Ultimately, American forces leave in both strategies. The President must clearly define what he views as the desired endstate and so, what conditions must be achieved for us to begin withdrawing our military and civilian support (not necessarily simultaneously) for the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. And then in broad terms, how he expects to achieve these defined goals.

The activist group Peace Action called the June 25th vote a sign that Obama has lost Democratic support for the war in Afghanistan. That is the wrong conclusion. I believe that the majority of Democrats were seeking a clearer definition of American objectives when they voted on the exit strategy amendment. To wit, many of the same Representatives have shown support for the war in Afghanistan. In March 2007, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) stated that money for Iraq was instead needed in Afghanistan. "We are making sure that the troops in Afghanistan, the longtime base of Al Qaeda, have the resources they need to complete the job..." Statements this past May from Rep. John Hall (D-NY) clearly showed that some of those who voted for the exit strategy amendment were not advocating withdrawal from Afghanistan. "More than ever," he stated, "our efforts to build a stable government in Afghanistan are vital to our national security and our fight against terrorism. Afghanistan is the center of that fight."

President Obama's new commanding general of US forces in Afghanistan, Lt General David McChrystal has changed our strategic path in Afghanistan to one of counterinsurgency. Moreover, President Obama has already directed a major increase in the civilian development effort. When Peace Action tried to portray the vote as a castigation of the Administration for lacking an "Afghan-led humanitarian aid, development work, and landmine clean up while supporting regional diplomacy," they were a few steps behind the White House.

The President's Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke has been extraordinarily proactive making multiple trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and beyond, working on regional diplomatic efforts to build stability. He has served as a point man, pushing for greater civilian funding, creating over 400 new civilian positions to help with development in Afghanistan and a tripling of civilian aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion per year. Moreover, Holbrooke's team is deliberately reviewing aid efforts, "to ensure aid reaches the public instead of flowing to foreign contractors."

Congress has a legitimate oversight role in helping ensure the Administration remains focused--and fully-resourced--in order to fulfill our national security interests. By recognizing the Administration has made major adjustments in moving down that path, and simultaneously calling on the Administration to clearly define its endstate strategy, rather than an exit strategy, Congress will be serving the American people and our security.