Foreign Policy Blogs

An Exit Strategy Before a Strategy?

There have been growing signals, some blatant, that the Obama administration is looking for a way out of Afghanistan, even as they are still in the process of deciding on a new strategy, which is likely to involve the deployment of thousands more American and NATO troops. It of course is prudent for the US government to have long term plans for such an important foreign affairs’ issue and all Americans and Afghans look forward to the day when a US military presence in the country is not needed, but this type of planning, especially when voiced publicly, is a cause of concern for the present and future prospects for success in stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating the insurgency.

The recent words of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on the issue speak volumes:

“An exit strategy is as important as ramping up troops.”

“It’s important to fully examine not just how we’re going to get folks in but how we’re going to get folks out.”

A story from also asserted that administration officials told them that the President was ’seeking an approach to eventually ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan’. The New York Times also ran an article on Sunday about how the financial cost of the war was causing members of the administration to balk at sending more troops. Obama himself has definitely backtracked on the ‘necessity war’ talk, instead voicing concerns about Karzai, corruption, cost, etc.


Though it would be irresponsible for the Obama administration to not being working on a long-term plan featuring a US exit plan, when one combines this with the length of decision making process, the fact that it will be the administration’s second Afghan strategy in a year, the public outing of key figure opinions (Eikenberry, McChrystal, Emanuel, Axelrod, Kerry, Biden, etc.), a blurry, uninspiring picture emerges. After all, if Obama is to send thousands of more troops to attempt to bring stability and battle Al Qaeda, the US cannot at the same time appear to be always looking for a way out.  The Taliban have one thing to their advantage and that is time.  If the US sends signals, as I believe we are doing right now, that we want to get out as soon as possible, than that only strengthens the Taliban’s position as they now that with every attack, with every NATO death, they are closer to their goal.

For me, the surge in Iraq was largely successful because it told the Iraqi population, especially the Sunnis and Al Qaeda and the Sadrists, that the Americans were not going anywhere and they better either come along or lose their ability to influence their country’s future. In other words, time was not on their side anymore. A surge is not just an increase in troops and resources, it is tangible symbol of a commitment. A commitment to keep the population safe, battle the insurgents more aggressively and in more places, to give the young government time to prove itself to its citizens, and a commitment to the US public that we are in it not only because we need to be, but also to win. No one knows that such a similar policy will work in Afghanistan, but it does offer a fighting chance.

If the Obama administration does in fact decide an something close to McChrystal’s recommendations there will need to be a strong commitment by the administration to present a unified front and a persuasive argument to the US, NATO, and Afghan public. This will take some work as the dissenting voices of Ambassador Eikenberry and Vice President Biden, among others, have been very public. Respected envoy and Afghan expert James Dobbins has stated that the Obama review ”has gone on long enough and it is starting to create fissures”. Convincing the American public is another matter as the war in polls has dropped consistently. Obama will definitely need to utilize political capital and use his velvet sounding pipes to effectively defend his strategy choice.

I’ll end with some curt advice offered to the President by Washington Post columnist David Broder:

If we can’t afford to lose, then play to win.