Any exit of US forces from the region would not only give the Taliban and the Al Qaeda a sense of victory, but would also have adverse impact on the stability of Pakistan, Gen (retd.) Wesley Clark, former North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told lawmakers at a Congressional hearing on Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"We have got about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and we simply cannot abruptly reverse US policy. We can't abandon the government in Afghanistan. We can't withdraw promptly our forces there, however much we might want to, without having adverse consequences far beyond Afghanistan and, especially, impacting on the government of Pakistan," Clark said.
"We can see experience after experience with this: Al Qaeda would claim credit; terrorist recruitment would surge; subversion within states allied and friendly with us would intensify; Pakistan's stability would be further undercut; and US power and prestige would wane. We would be dramatically increasing the threat," he said.
The best exit strategy, he argued, would be after the US and its allies have taken down the complete leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
"We do believe that there's still substantial Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. The discussion of this has been publicly suppressed, and probably should remain so, but I hope it will be forced foremost in the minds of the administration," Clark said.
"In the meantime, in Afghanistan we've got to build an exit strategy around four factors: Attempting to reduce the level of violence by seeking a political amelioration of the conflict; greater assistance to the government of Pakistan in dealing with Al Qaeda and the Taliban remaining in Pakistan; economic development in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and developing a more capable security structure for the Afghans," he said.
Supporting the Obama administration's effort to provide more economic aid to Pakistan, Gen Clark, however, suggested that the US should demand more direct action by Pakistan against the Al Qaeda leadership.
"We must encourage and demand that Pakistan take direct action against the Al Qaeda leadership. That won't be easy because there must be someone in Pakistan who must believe that if it weren't for Al Qaeda being there, that we would be totally aligned with India," he said.
"So somehow we've got to disabuse the government of Pakistan of that suspicion, and it's got to be driven down through the ranks. And we've got to have their wholehearted support to clean up their own internal security problems," he continued.
"For them, it's not just a matter of teaching the Taliban a lesson and making them skedaddle back into the Frontier areas, but it's a matter of their taking care of our principal threat for us, so we don't have to," Gen Clark said.
The general said the US should also be encouraging the development of the mineral and hydrocarbon resources in Afghanistan and promoting a long-range gas pipeline that connects India and Pakistan to Central Asian gas resources.
"As far as security is concerned, we have got to give them the additional security forces they need -- primarily, the police and the militia that they need. We're never going to be able to walk away from US responsibilities for the support, for the intelligence, intelligence collection, the logistics. We tried to do it in Vietnam and it failed," he said.
"There will never be a complete and wholly satisfactory solution, and so we've got to meet our own security needs. And the principal security need in this region is to reduce the continuing threat of the Al Qaeda, which is reportedly based principally in Pakistan. It's their decisive defeat that we must seek," Gen Clark said.
Image: Gen (retd.) Wesley Clark