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Commentary on the President’s Missing Exit Strategy: Turning Crisis into Opportunity

September 10, 2010

The President’s Afghanistan war effort is now being questioned from the Left, Right, and Center.  Before war critics are dismissed out of hand, we must ask whether there is a credibility crisis with the President’s current military strategy that is causing this frustration and anger.

Unfortunately, the current strategy suffers from a strategic contradiction. The President has told the American people that the surge is critical while simultaneously telling them that we must withdraw as soon as possible.  This contradiction has undermined American support and encouraged the Afghans, Pakistanis, Central Asians, Iranians, and Indians to double-deal and hedge against the American withdrawal by establishing proxies.  The region fears that we will abandon them soon as we did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.  Much as they did during Vietnam, Americans fear that lives are being lost in a war that cannot be won.

President Obama can develop the missing long-term strategic end-game by following the example of President Dwight Eisenhower.  After Eisenhower was elected President, his mentor, George C. Marshall, warned him that America had no long-term Cold War strategy.  Eisenhower proceeded to set up an outside of government group of teams called the “Solarium Exercise” to devise such a “long-haul” strategy. This work created a balanced strategy for military, political, and economic investment and signaled our intentions to the world, eventually allowing us to win the Cold War.

President Obama should learn from President Eisenhower’s exercise, and rely on an outside of government, high-level group to create an exit strategy for the longest war in our nation’s history.  For Afghanistan and Pakistan, this means using what Harvard Professor Joe Nye calls “smart” power which requires creating an equal balance between military operations and economic development.

While the counter insurgency strategy seeks to change hearts and minds, right now Afghans are most interested in their stomachs, safety, and jobs.  This new strategy should promote sustainable economic growth and increase stability by giving the people a stake in their future.   This comprehensive endgame must include Pakistan, which is a stronghold for al Qaeda and a key economic, political, and military partner.  Pakistan continues to face destabilizing militant attacks, made worse by the recent devastating floods that have ravaged that nuclear armed country.

Fortunately, General Petraeus’ revolutionary counter insurgency strategy has already been complemented by the revolutionary economic-development theory of Dr. Carl Schramm of the Kauffman Foundation.  Dr. Schramm offers an innovative new way to create economic growth in conflict areas, as outlined in his brilliant article in the April-May issue of Foreign Affairs. This theory, entitled “Expeditionary Economics,” creates economic development in post-conflict areas by promoting local entrepreneurs and private enterprise, thus creating a stake for local populations in their future.

Expeditionary economics promotes bottom-up, localized strategies to foster economic development while stabilization efforts occur simultaneously.  Currently, our Center is working with the Rural Development Institute (RDI) to develop a house-and-garden-plot land distribution program, which plans to grant rural Pakistanis who lack land of their own small house-and-garden plots to supplement their income.  Ownership of this land will give poor rural Pakistanis real economic benefits as well as a stake in the stability of the current system, thereby lessening the appeal of the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Another tactic worth examining is the creation of a research and investment fund to promote private sector growth. This is similar to what Qatar has already set up in the Middle East and North Africa. Leveraging private sector investment, this fund would identify regional economic sectors with growth potential, provide local entrepreneurs with capital they need to grow their businesses, and help develop export markets for these businesses.   Russia and China will be key partners and every effort must be made to make this a cooperative investment endeavor rather than creating competition over regional influence.  Due to the interconnected regional economies, this strategy must encompass Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and India.

This is the missing end game the President must provide or face an increasing chance of defeat.  We must secure the buy-in of our allies around a comprehensive private sector development and investment strategy.  Such a positive development would overwhelm al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s message of U.S. abandonment coupled with terror and destruction.

While the concept of expeditionary economics has yet to be fully embraced in Washington, it has been embraced by key elements of our military educational system.  The National Defense University’s (NDU) president, our trustee, the creative Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau, has begun implementing these ideas at NDU, West Point and the Command and General Staff College. However, it is important to note that they are only operating at the teaching level and are not in the process of reforming operations.

Time is running out.  General Petraeus’ creativity must be reinforced by the White House’s creation of a comprehensive long-term exit strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that offers the region’s people a more prosperous future. The alternative is a potential defeat at the hands of al Qaeda and the Taliban.   If President Eisenhower and Secretary of State George Marshall had the imagination in creating a strategy to win the Cold War, surely we should aim to match such greatness in our time.

Dr. David Abshire
August 23, 2010

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