"Exit Strategy" Might Not Be What You Mean

11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two years ago, I sat in a DC boardroom discussing conflict resolution tactics with other wonks and federal employees. Iraq and Afghanistan came up, along with many other places that the United States had committed resources--military, economic and civilian (i.e. the people not wearing uniforms). I kept referring to the importance of an "exit strategy"...thinking that it was a consensus term that meant the time when we could pack up our troops and come home. Finally, my friend John, a military officer now deployed to Afghanistan, had enough. He told me to quit saying "exit strategy" because I was contradicting myself if what I wanted was a long-term plan where many skills and resources were provided to places in need. He pointed out that it was wrong because many US security commitments are inclusive now, not only of other nations, but of the people we are helping. Hence he interpreted "exit strategy" as abandonment, of the collective effort and of any US commitment, economic, political or military. What I wanted was our whole government to be involved--with less reliance on the military. I realized that John was right. By my own definition, "exit strategy" is not what I had meant at all.

I think we're at a a similar teachable moment right now. This means we might need to consciously search and replace language that may have been useful and accurate at one point, but is now both politically distorted and no longer adequate to the policy challenge we face in places like Afghanistan. If you don't think the US should be spending any effort there at all, you don't need to read any further. However, if you're feeling queasy about increased military commitment and worried about our strategy, but still feel obligated to help the Afghan people, read on.

Our involvement in Afghanistan has no simple solutions. Moreover, what we decide to do there will impact American security for years to come. Here's the problem: We are considering sending more military resources to fix a threat that--according to our own Defense Department--doesn't have a military solution. But there's a larger challenge here than troop numbers--it is to prevent a totally destabilized region. Doing this will require a substantial and long term commitment (and not only from the USA, but from other countries, and from the Afghans).

Given how much of US foreign policy is carried out by uniformed personnel these days, it might help to concentrate less on how many troops; asking instead what will the troops be doing? General McChrystal is sending a clear message that soldiers will be experiencing a sea-change in how they go about their mission...that this is all part of making the safety of Afghans the first organizing priority. This mission change is a helpful pivot to talk about a larger strategic and urgent issue; the significant imbalance of resources in our government that favors military solutions over non military problem solving. Where is the non-military plan? Can we do this? If not, who can?

At this point, the public has only been told half the story. Which is why the main lens on the strategy dilemma is a military counterinsurgency. Wonky example: It takes years to create a multi-tasking, multi-lingual Special Forces soldier--why would it take any less to create the civilian equivalent? We don't have many of these people right now so the military is subbing in for things that really aren't its job. This lack of capacity should be half the conversation over what to do in Afghanistan. It is one of the reasons there is so much confusion over the distinction between traditional military counter terrorism (CT) options that involve Pakistan where the baddies are Al Qaeda and the more progressive military counterinsurgency options--more focused on stabilizing Afghanistan where the baddies are extremist Taliban.

If you want to see this President succeed, a vocabulary shift is vital. The more public advocates use leftover framing and messaging (especially from 2003-07 opposition to the Iraq war) the easier we make it for the right-wing to do the same. In fact, they are drooling into their keyboards right now anticipating the attack on President Obama--calling him "uninterested" in national security; stomping their feet about a bogus "fight" between the president and the military over Afghanistan; demanding a congressional hearing with General McChrystal so they can manipulate this illusion further.

The key thing to remember here is this: Such attack rhetoric betrays a fundamental ignorance and even disregard for the military's role in government and in American democracy. Conservatives are cynically using the military--they know that people in uniform can't defend themselves with political counter arguments. The US military are professionals. They offer their best judgment and expert advice when asked by their civilian leaders. Civilians make policy. This is a cornerstone in our democratic system. Any responsible President listens to many voices. Hence, the counterinsurgency (40K troops) recommendation from General McChrystal is one possible piece of a national strategy. Not the national strategy. This week, President Obama began a comprehensive review. We should all be rejoicing that we finally have a president that respects the role of the military in American democracy.

There are both political and policy reasons to start using different language to move forward in Afghanistan. Instead of "exit strategy" how about "handoff sequence" or a "relayed civ-mil plan" or even that good ole "division of labor?" Last week in a hearing, Afghanistan expert Clare Lockhart suggested "transition strategy." Other ideas?