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Pro: Obama must redeem campaign promise to set date for Afghanistan withdrawal

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Robert Naiman
June 27, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should Congress require Obama to outline an exit strategy from Afghanistan by the end of this year?

In March, President Obama told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that the United States must have an exit strategy in Afghanistan.


Eighty-eight members of Congress agree. They’re supporting a bill introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., that is one sentence long: “Not later than December 31, 2009, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to Congress a report outlining the United States exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan participating in Operation Enduring Freedom.”


Members of Congress are going a bit further than President Obama. They’re saying not only that the United States should have an exit strategy but that Congress and the American people should be told what it is.


It’s Congress—and the American people—who have the power of the purse. Earlier this month, Congress approved another war supplemental, bringing the total spending for the war in Afghanistan to $223 billion since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service.


Americans aren’t just paying for the war through their tax dollars. More than 700 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan. Some 56,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan now, and President Obama has ordered 21,000 more to be sent there. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has acknowledged to Congress that U.S. casualties will likely rise.


Critics of the escalating war in Afghanistan fear that we are being led into a quagmire like Vietnam. A January report from the Carnegie Foundation concluded that the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan was the single most important factor driving the country’s insurgencies. Already the administration’s announced escalation has had the effect of uniting different insurgent groups. An ABC poll earlier this year found that more than 80 percent of Afghans opposed the U.S. military escalation.


We’re told that we’re supporting a democratic government in Afghanistan, but when that government asks us to stop deeply unpopular airstrikes and night raids by our special forces, we ignore them.


When the Afghan government we’re supposedly fighting for asks us to support meaningful negotiations with leaders of the country’s insurgencies toward a political settlement of the country’s conflicts, we don’t even acknowledge the request.


These are among the most important issues facing the country, and we don’t allow the Afghan government to have any effective say. We want the people of Afghanistan to see their government as legitimate—but when it comes to key issues that we control, we don’t treat the government as legitimate. So it’s little wonder if Afghans follow our lead in not taking their government seriously.


When Congress tried to impose a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq through legislation, we were told “arbitrary withdrawal timetables” were unacceptable. But eventually—under pressure from the Iraqi government—the Bush Administration agreed to a withdrawal timetable. President Obama has repeatedly re-affirmed this timetable, including in his recent speech in Cairo.


These eighty-eight members of Congress aren’t demanding a timetable for withdrawal. They’re simply asking to be told what the plan is for getting to the situation where there is no U.S. military occupation of the country.


In announcing his new strategy and in his speech in Cairo, President Obama said that the United States does not want to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. But he hasn’t told us what his plan is for doing something else.


This is something you almost never hear our leaders talk about: how long are we going to be in Afghanistan? It’s a forbidden topic. But occasionally something slips through: last year a British commander said the goal for handing back Kandahar Air Base was 2020.


If the United States’ exit strategy for Afghanistan includes 10 more years of war, don’t the American people have a right to know that?


Robert Naiman is national coordinator of Just Foreign Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Readers may write to him at CEPR, 1611 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20009; Web site: www.cepr.net.

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