End the War by Winning It

Barack Obama made the right decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. But he made the wrong one in announcing an arbitrary date for U.S. withdrawal.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I think President Obama made the right decision to embrace a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and to resource it properly.  I would have much preferred that Gen. Stanley McChrystal receive the entire force he had requested.  But I have spoken with our military and civilian leaders, and I think the 30,000 additional U.S. troops that the president has called for — plus greater force commitments from our allies — will enable us to reverse the momentum of the insurgency and create the conditions for success in Afghanistan.  I support the president’s decision, and I think it deserves the support of all Americans, both Republicans and Democrats.

What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the president’s decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.  A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region — all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war.  A withdrawal date only emboldens al Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight. 

Yes, our commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended.  Yes, large numbers of U.S. combat troops will not remain there indefinitely.  And yes, this war will one day end.  But it should end when we have achieved our goals.  Success is the real exit strategy.  And when conditions on the ground have decisively begun to change for the better — that is when our troops should start to return home with honor, not one minute longer, not one minute sooner, and certainly not on some arbitrary date in July 2011, which our enemies can exploit to weaken and intimidate our friends. 

Another concern I have has to do with the civilian side of our counterinsurgency strategy.  Greater military force is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, but it is not sufficient.  I am confident in our military strategy and leadership, and I believe our troops can do everything that General McChrystal laid out in his assessment this summer.  I believe we can "clear" and "hold."  But I am concerned that we and our allies do not have a unified plan to "build" — to work with and support our Afghan partners, in Kabul and beyond, as they build their own nation, their own economy, and their own free institutions. 

I’m also concerned by reports of divisions in our embassy, and by major differences between our commander and our ambassador.  We can only succeed in Afghanistan if we have a joint civil-military campaign plan-unified at every level, from top to bottom-much as Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus established in Iraq during the surge.

I have been critical of the president during the past several months, but that is now behind us.  Our focus going forward must be on winning the war in Afghanistan.  And this depends as much on the substance of our policy as the signals we send to actors in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region.  The president was wrong to signal our intention to begin leaving Afghanistan on an arbitrary date.  But the fact is, we now have the right mission.  We now have the right leadership.  And we now have a request for sufficient resources to succeed.  So our friends can know that we will support them.  Our enemies can know that we will defeat them.  And all can know that we are committed to the long-term success of Afghanistan and Pakistan as stable states that can govern themselves, secure themselves, and sustain their own development.  Though the nature of our commitment to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and their region will change over time, our commitment to their success will endure.

We now have an opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus in support of a vital national security priority: defeating al Qaeda and its violent extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and ensuring that these countries never again serve as bases for attacks against America and our allies.  Americans need to know why winning this war is essential to our country’s security.  They need to know that things in Afghanistan will get worse before they get better — that, unfortunately, casualties will likely rise in the year to come — but that ultimately we will succeed.

I look to the president, and to his entire administration, to lead an unfailing effort to build bipartisan support for the war in Afghanistan, both among the public and here in the Congress.  I will be an ally in this effort.  And I will to do everything in my power to ensure that we win this war — not just end it, but win it.

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