Exit Strategy might not be what you mean

Published on the Huffington Post, by Lorelei Kelly, Sept. 30, 2009.

Two years ago, I sat in a DC boardroom discussing conflict resolution tactics with other wonks and federal employees. Iraq and Afghanistan came up, along with many other places that the United States had committed resources–military, economic and civilian (i.e. the people not wearing uniforms). I kept referring to the importance of an “exit strategy”…thinking that it was a consensus term that meant the time when we could pack up our troops and come home. Finally, my friend John, a military officer now deployed to Afghanistan, had enough. He told me to quit saying “exit strategy” because I was contradicting myself if what I wanted was a long-term plan where many skills and resources were provided to places in need. He pointed out that it was wrong because many US security commitments are inclusive now, not only of other nations, but of the people we are helping. Hence he interpreted “exit strategy” as abandonment, of the collective effort and of any US commitment, economic, political or military. What I wanted was our whole government to be involved–with less reliance on the military. I realized that John was right. By my own definition, “exit strategy” is not what I had meant at all.  

I think we’re at a a similar teachable moment right now. This means we might need to consciously search and replace language that may have been useful and accurate at one point, but is now both politically distorted and no longer adequate to the policy challenge we face in places like Afghanistan. If you don’t think the US should be spending any effort there at all, you don’t need to read any further. However, if you’re feeling queasy about increased military commitment and worried about our strategy, but still feel obligated to help the Afghan people, read on …

… The key thing to remember here is this: Such attack rhetoric betrays a fundamental ignorance and even disregard for the military’s role in government and in American democracy. Conservatives are cynically using the military–they know that people in uniform can’t defend themselves with political counter arguments. The US military are professionals. They offer their best judgment and expert advice when asked by their civilian leaders. Civilians make policy. This is a cornerstone in our democratic system. Any responsible President listens to many voices. Hence, the counterinsurgency (40K troops) recommendation from General McChrystal is one possible piece of a national strategy. Not the national strategy. This week, President Obama began a comprehensive review. We should all be rejoicing that we finally have a president that respects the role of the military in American democracy.

There are both political and policy reasons to start using different language to move forward in Afghanistan. Instead of “exit strategy” how about “handoff sequence” or a “relayed civ-mil plan” or even that good ole “division of labor?” Last week in a hearing, Afghanistan expert Clare Lockhart suggested “transition strategy.” Other ideas? (full text).

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