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10:03 AM Tue, Dec. 18th

Column: Victory should be our exit strategy

During a stop in Phoenix in August, President Barack Obama told a group of veterans that the war in Afghanistan is "not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity ... if left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans.

"So this is not only a war worth fighting; this is fundamental to the defense of our people."

I agree with the president and will support the renewed effort he recently announced. Under the plan, an additional 30,000 troops will be deployed to Afghanistan over the next six to eight months. This additional manpower will bolster U.S. efforts to train Afghans so that they can provide for their own security.

These troops will also help to take control of areas now dominated by the Taliban, hold those areas, and then gradually turn them over to Afghan security forces.

Unfortunately, by announcing his intention to draw down our forces beginning in July 2011, the president made the mission more difficult to accomplish.

When I was in Afghanistan this past April, I met with a group of tribal elders in Kandahar province, the Taliban's stronghold in the country. These tribal elders made clear that they had no particular affection for the Taliban, but they didn't know if they could trust the United States to provide security over the long term.

The arbitrary timeline for withdrawal announced by the president will not inspire trust and confidence among those we need to side with us against the Taliban and al-Qaida. They may conclude they are better off making accommodations with the Taliban - who will be around for the long haul - than siding with us since we announced we won't. The result could be a return to Taliban control of areas that could then be used by al-Qaida to train, recruit, generate revenue, and plan for terrorists operations.

Moreover, if the enemy knows that our forces will began to leave in a year-and-a-half, they can simply bide their time, wait for our troops to leave, and then re-emerge to re-establish their safe haven.

A quote by an unnamed Taliban member sums up the fear that drives many Afghans to side with the Taliban and causes the governments in Kabul and Islamabad to limit their commitments to this fight: "Americans have clocks, but we have time."

If we don't stay to finish the mission (i.e., secure the country such that the Taliban and al-Qaida cannot move back in), it is more likely we will have to come back at some point in the future.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said, "If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can't tell you how fast al-Qaida would be back in Afghanistan."

Pakistan is also critical to our success. I was also there earlier this year, when terrorists were rapidly expanding their control over large areas of Pakistan. Some there urged accommodation with terrorists. Others, including the United States, urged the Pakistani army to attack and push the terrorists back. Because of our assurance of help, Pakistan decided to hit the terrorists hard - and it has done well.

I am concerned that the president's announced withdrawal date will also reduce the Pakistanis' commitment, which is essential. It will do no good to simply push the Taliban into safe havens in Pakistan.

Like most Americans, I, too, would like to see the war in Afghanistan come to a rapid conclusion. The best chance for a swift conclusion to this war is with a full commitment by the United States now, without an arbitrary timeline for withdrawal. All eyes are on us. If we show a full commitment to defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban, our NATO allies and brave partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan - who fight this battle in their own backyards - are more likely to follow suit with a larger effort that will be sustained until victory.

For the safety of our nation, we cannot let Afghanistan fall back into the hands of terrorists. It was just eight years ago when terrorists - who launched their plan from the then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan - flew three commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, murdering 3,000 innocent Americans.

The United States went to war in Afghanistan to deny terrorists a safe haven and, thereby, prevent future attacks on our homeland. That mission continues today. I believe Congress should stand behind the president and work to ensure that the mission in Afghanistan ends in victory.