We were winning in Afghanistan. That's what I saw on the ground during a brief mission there early in the war, when I was director of the Navy's "Deep Blue" anti-terrorism unit. Not only had our military swept aside the Taliban, but it was working in concert with psych ops, civil affairs, special operations forces, state department and local Afghan power-brokers to create the security and state infrastructure for a new Afghanistan.
Since then, the situation has degraded. Success is still attainable - and necessary - but now means something different. We must put aside ambitions of Afghan nation building beyond basic stability and security - we forfeited that opportunity when we shifted our resources and attention to a flawed mission in Iraq and allowed the condition in Afghanistan to deteriorate too far.
What we can do is complete what has always been our mission: the disruption and destruction of al-Qaida.
Last year, then-CIA Director General Michael Hayden reported that al-Qaida had established a new "safe haven" across the rugged border in Pakistan. This report should have sent a chill down the spine of anyone charged with safeguarding this nation. We had allowed the same conditions that permitted us to be struck on 9/11 to re-emerge.
al-Qaida has already demonstrated its ability to operate effectively from remote and isolated hideaways. We must keep up the pressure. As General Hayden told me in response to commanders' demands for "actionable intelligence" early in the fight against al-Qaida, when he was the head of the National Security Agency: "If you give me some action, I'll give you some actionable intelligence."
This war has shifted in other ways as well. Now, the strategic focus is Pakistan itself, along with al-Qaida's haven there. The president and his advisors have recognized this as they develop a new strategy for the region, likely with an increase in our force posture.
I support a measured increase of troops, provided it is implemented under the following conditions:
1) Our mission is the elimination of al-Qaida and the jihadist elements of the Taliban (about 30 percent of its force of 20,000) that are harbored in Pakistan;
2) Our goal in Afghanistan is to leave behind conditions that, while not ideal, are inhospitable to al-Qaida; and
3) We establish clear benchmarks that will trigger an exit strategy if we are successful or a fallback to a counterterrorism "containment strategy" if our goals are not being met.
The most important lesson that I drew from my time as director for Defense Policy on President Clinton's National Security Council is that every step of a war has to be carefully weighed with a cost/benefit analysis. I believe the cost in this situation is worth it now, but must continue to be measured.
It is possible al-Qaida may move its operations to a place like Yemen or Somalia, but nowhere else would its leadership enjoy the unique advantages it now has in Pakistan of being welcomed by large, radical clans in such inaccessible terrain.
al-Qaida also draws institutional support from elements of the Pakistani state and security forces. Pakistani intelligence services helped create the Taliban and other extremist groups during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and now the country faces a real danger of becoming a failed state at the hands of an insurgency it helped breed. Nuclear-armed Pakistan risks becoming the epicenter of new and larger terrorist operations. That is why Pakistan must be the real focus of our Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy.
I appreciate President Obama's deliberate approach to this important decision. America's national security would be stronger today if the previous administration had exercised greater deliberation. President Obama understands that the fabric of our national security has indeed worn thin.
Due to our involvement in Iraq, our Army is unable to respond to potential conflicts elsewhere in the world, such as in South Korea, because of its greatly lessened state of readiness in its units at home. For years, many units have not conducted any training besides counterinsurgency. Further, an unprecedented strain on our troops and their families has led to alarming rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and other problems.
But we must remember that, in the words of Winston Churchill, "Sometimes it's not enough to do our best. Sometimes we have to do what is required."
Now, there is a requirement to take advantage of a last, best opportunity to eliminate the enemy that struck us, and at a far less cost than if we have to redeploy in the future or wait too long for Afghan forces to be trained to take up the fight for us.
If we leave that safe haven behind and are struck again, what can we ever say to those we swore to protect?
A former three-star Navy admiral, Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., is the highest-ranking veteran elected to Congress and is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.