An Exit Strategy is a Must-Have for Afghanistan

In an interview that aired Sunday, President Obama told the CBS program “60 Minutes” that any new U.S. approach to Afghanistan would require an exit strategy from the get-go. Mr. Obama is right. In the coming days, he might be expected to repeat this point – and argue that properly sizing, training and mentoring the Afghanistan security forces in the coming years is the correct way to develop such a plan.

Some of Mr. Obama’s critics will worry that this kind of talk signals presidential wavering after a two-year campaign in which he emphatically underscored the importance of Afghanistan. They may sense that Mr. Obama is listening to the left of his party, anxious that Afghanistan could become the next Vietnam, and argue there is no point in talking about exit before we first talk of victory. Their fears are exacerbated because Mr. Obama has not yet approved the full increase of American forces that Gen. David D. Mc- Kiernan and his other commanders have requested, initially authorizing just half the proposal.

As things stand, the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan will go up from its current level of about 35,000 to just more than 50,000, while commanders want closer to 65,000 (which together with contributions from our allies would result in roughly 100,000 foreign troops in the country).

It is true that we need a victory strategy for Afghanistan. But because of the highly political nature of counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts, victory strategies do, in fact, require exit strategies.

The reasoning here is twofold. First, of course, this kind of war requires support on the home front. With the Afghanistan war soon to become the longest in the country’s history, Americans will rightly ask when it finally will end. Hearing reassurances from experts that counterinsurgencies often take a decade or longer will not suffice as an answer to this question, moreover, because Americans know that could be just an excuse for mission failure to date. As Duke University professor Peter D. Feaver and co-authors argue in their new book, “Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts,” in wars with high costs, Americans also need some sense that their leaders and commanders know what they are doing and that, in fact, they have a strategy for success.

Second, Afghans want an answer to this question. They are not the caricature of a xenophobic people sometimes portrayed in books and Op-Ed columns, in which opponents of this war suggest the Afghans hate all foreigners and will always fight to drive them from their territory as they drove out the Brits in the 19th century and the Soviets last century. In fact, those previous invaders were occupiers and colonialists, whereas today’s foreign coalition is working under United Nations auspices and with the Afghan government to devise a plan that must, in fact, result in the ultimate departure of foreigners.

But of course, recognizing the need for an exit strategy is not the same as articulating one. That is the next challenge for Mr. Obama as he first presents a new war strategy to the country in the coming days and then goes to Europe next week to lobby NATO for greater support. I predict he will be up to the task.

Stated most simply, our task in Afghanistan in the years ahead has two main elements. First, working within the NATO coalition and teaming closely with increasingly capable Afghan forces, we need to protect the Afghan population. That approach will further erode whatever small support exists now for the Taliban and other extremist militias in the country, improve our intelligence networks for pursuing the enemy, provide a more dependable infrastructure for travel and commerce that will in turn create an alternative to the current opium-based economy, and improve the population’s psychological and political commitment to its own government as well as the general notion of a modern nation-state. It will help if President Hamid Karzai further clamps down on drug runners and other criminals his government has not yet done enough to oppose.

Second, as this strategy begins to work in the coming couple of years (and it almost surely will take that much time to see meaningful progress, given weak Afghan institutions and the slow pace of the planned U.S. buildup in the country) we need to give more and more of the responsibility for executing it to the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government more generally. This is the essence of the exit strategy Mr. Obama needs to outline.

And, for this strategy to work, several things must happen. Our increased troops, and any additional help from allies, must focus on training Afghan security forces – not only in the classroom and the rifle ranges, but as they deploy in the field. Embedding and partnering is at least as important as schooling and basic training.

In addition, we need proper goals for the size of those Afghan forces, as the United States is gradually coming to realize. Thankfully, as a result of the Obama-led review, it appears that our goals for the Afghan security forces are headed in the right direction. For the first time, we are asking what it really would take to protect the country. Rather than cap army and police at some 150,000 indigenous troops, as has been the case, or at 200,000 as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates proposed last summer, it seems likely that total Afghan forces will head to 350,000 or even more.

That is effectively the exit strategy. Of course, civil-sector reform and a stronger economy are needed too, as are successful elections in Afghanistan later this year and a host of other factors.

But let’s keep our eye on the eight ball. We need to help Afghanistan become secure and then let Afghans themselves do more and more of the securing until we work ourselves out of a job. It may take the whole next eight years, but it is the right way to proceed.