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The Exit Strategy: Afghan Security Forces. What?

On CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday, President Obama said “There’s got to be an exit strategy” for Afghanistan, but today he … didn’t give one. What’s the story with that?

The chairpeople of the administration strategy review –former CIA official Bruce Riedel, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy — addressed that question in a press briefing today. They placed a U.S. exit in the context of Afghan security force capacity:

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The only exit strategy that Bruce and Michelle and I and the people we work for and with can see is pretty basic. We can leave as the Afghans can deal with their own security problems. That’s why the President today put emphasis on training the National Army, training and improving the National Police. And he said — and I would draw your attention to this — that there will be an increase in their numbers, although he did not give a precise figure. I’ve seen some in articles, particularly one in The New York Times the other day — those figures were figures kicking around in the planning process, but they weren’t sufficiently scrubbed down; they weren’t sufficiently costed out. So the President felt that he ought to just talk about the increase now and we’re going to keep working on it.

And:

MS. FLOURNOY: If I could just clarify one point on the topic of exit strategy, even as we ultimately consider transition of responsibilities in the security sector, one of the things that’s very clear in this strategy is a long-term commitment to assisting the Afghan people, in terms of economic and security assistance long-term, even as the security sector may transition over time. So I wanted to clarify that.

Flournoy’s comment seems rather on-point. This is a deep commitment to Afghanistan.

But about the question of Afghan security force capacity determining a U.S. exit. It’s a separate question from the stated goal of the mission, which, as Flournoy said, is “disrupting and defeating al-Qaeda and its associates, and preventing Afghanistan and Pakistan — preventing Afghanistan from returning to become a safe haven.” Conceivably, there could be a situation where, to use Holbrooke’s phrase, the “Afghans can deal with their own security problems” *before *al-Qaeda is disrupted and defeated, *especially *if we’re going by Denis McDonough’s definition of those terms. Would we leave the job to them, then? Alternatively, we could conceivably disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda — and, you know, insh’allah to that – before we nurture a sufficiently capable Afghan security infrastructure. It seems clear from Holbrooke and Flournoy’s comments that we would not leave Afghanistan before that situation came to pass.

The broader point — to answer Dan Froomkin’s questions — isn’t to make a normative case for one alternative or the other. It’s to point out that these are seperable issues. If the goal is a goal about al-Qaeda, it’s hard to understand defining the exit in different terms. It’s one thing to assure the Afghans that the United States won’t abandon them to their fate. But it’s another to explicate the exit strategy of a counterterrorism mission in terms of state-building. What if there are capable Afghan security forces but still al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan?

TWI is on Twitter. Follow Spencer Ackerman’s ongoing coverage of President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy here.

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