The Exit Strategy We Need at Home

September is upon us. By the end of this month, mid-October at the latest, U.S. policy in Afghanistan will have fundamentally shifted. From what I've been hearing, everyone who works on this issue expects to not come up for air until Christmas. We are at a pivotal time. Reports from Afghanistan range from dire to mediocre. Those leading the effort -- from the president to the NATO allies to Special Ambassador Holbrooke to the Afghans themselves -- claim that we must see the effects of a fundamental policy shift away from the use of force and toward a place where we get the benefit of the doubt. Commander McChrystal's review went to the Defense Department yesterday. The administration's metrics of progress are due sometime soon and war casualties are returning the public's attention to the issue. A recent post-ABC poll found more Americans pessimistic about the war than ever. The confidence game is on.

Despite protests actions planned for October, even anti-war Americans feel conflicted about Afghanistan. Democrats and most progressives loathe getting in President Obama's face about the war. They also feel obligated to help Afghans. There's no escaping the fact that any degree of success in Afghanistan is going to take a patient and long-term social strategy. Whether it is the military carrying out this strategy, the international community, non-uniform wearing American personnel, contractors, whoever. Getting Afghanistan to a positive tipping point is going to take a big, big commitment. Many say it is impossible. Some of those protesting additional troops are not uncomfortable with a long commitment, they just don't want it to be a military one.

But this open-ended contradiction is the crux of a much larger issue -- one that is routinely ignored in the debate about Afghanistan. Which is this: Why is the military responsible for so much of our nation's security? Why have our other agencies of government -- those led by people in regular clothes -- become so incapable? Why haven't we -- nearly twenty years after the Cold War's end -- figured out a way to deploy all the talents in our government to solve the task at hand? This failure was obvious in New Orleans in 2005. It is obvious today in Afghanistan. And in order to achieve anything resembling success there, we must correct it. The shift to civilian dominance and then self-reliance in Afghanistan must become emblematic of movement away from military-reliance here at home. Any "exit strategy" for Afghanistan must be accompanied by an exit strategy for our own system's addiction to military-led solutions. Congress just allocated billions of dollars to restore the civil-sector in Pakistan. How about channeling some of that same concern inward?

America's over-dependence on the military is an open secret among policy types. Study upon study -- many by the military itself -- points out how the Defense Department accrues responsibilities that it probably shouldn't have -- with little discussion or scrutiny. As an institution, it shuns political debates (though it is a master at gaming the budget process) and so is often defenseless and reduced to stereotypes in public. On top of that, American culture has a dysfunctional pathology about the military. In my own conversations, I've heard emotions ranging from adulation to loathing to sorrow and shame about society's ignorance about those who wear a uniform. None of these feelings lead to productive and factual discussions about new ways for interacting with the world. We've ignored the conversation for so long that critical dialogue about the military is easily misconstrued as criticism of the military. This has been going on while our uniformed personnel have become the most internationalist, most skilled and most relevant players across the U.S. government. Our cultural hyper-sensitivity on top of ignorance is hurting us. Even more, it is hurting our ability to be the world's premiere open and democratic society. No matter how much we love and trust the U.S. military, the American face to the world cannot be wearing a uniform.

Military professionals also ascribe to an ethic where no challenge precedes service. They are the ultimate idealists. They salute their civilian masters and carry out orders. Which is why we create myths about them, but also why they shouldn't be in charge of policy. Besides the fact that it is not their job to set strategy, belief in the supremacy of civilian control is the cornerstone of American democracy -- cherished and carefully guarded by the military itself. The institutional failure I'm talking about -- our dependence on the Defense Department for far too much -- it isn't the military's fault. It is a failure of civilian leadership. The blame lies with Congress and the Executive Branch. In a world where we can no longer contain threats and where force is mostly counter-productive, every agency of the U.S. government, from Justice to Agriculture to Commerce to the Census Bureau should be deployable overseas. The roles of the State Department and USAID (our economic development agency) need to be updated and given much more influence. (USAID still doesn't have a leader, which is depriving our policy of a long-term developmental perspective just when we need it most). Because of this decades-long failure, we must now learn to run before we learn to walk in Afghanistan. And people in uniform are still tasked with pretty much everything. And it will stay this way until we have alternatives.

If we had a broader notion of security, the politics of Afghanistan would be entirely different. The laboratory of the 1990s could have provided the context for a new security policy -- but Congress pretty much skipped this thorny topic while under conservative reign. In 1993, we lost 18 Army Rangers in Somalia amidst a humanitarian mission that switched to warlord hunting. Security policy making should have stopped in its tracks and shifted right there. When we tried to prop up Haiti in the 90s, we quickly realized that they needed civil administrators, not the Marines. For years, our Guard and Reservists have been setting up humanitarian programs, doing city planning and helping local police throughout the Balkans. If we'd paid attention to those lessons, we would be ten years ahead of where we are now, scrambling to get civilian personnel to Afghanistan. And no matter how much people want to ignore Iraq today, we have lots to lose by not learning the lessons of that war.

Whether a person agrees or disagrees with American policy in Afghanistan, anyone involved in the debate needs to take into consideration the much larger question of how America interacts with the world. Must our best foot forward always be wearing a combat boot? If security is a broad concept and a long term ideal, words like "occupation" on the Left no longer make sense and words like "victory" on the Right seem foolish. Policy proposals would be revealed differently, too. Like Representative McGovern's (MA) very reasonable request for some kind of end-state indicators. Or Senator Feingold's (WI) desire for a timeline. These shouldn't be controversial. They should be planning tools that are part of a long-term commitment where we have phases of activity that overlap and change. That's it. These terms wouldn't be lightening rods if we shifted the conversation -- and the responsibility -- for carrying out American policy.

Last week Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commented on the decline in U.S. public support for the Afghan war. But he invited a national debate over the conflict, saying it was better to take a "hard look" at the problem than to ignore it.

"Let's take a good, hard look at this fight we're in, what we're doing and why," he said. "I'd rather see us, as a nation, argue about the war -- struggling to get it right -- than ignore it."

This is great advice. And in so doing, we could finally have a long overdue conversation about US presence in the world -- how we want to be and how we're going to get there.