Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark urged members of Congress Tuesday to adopt an exit strategy for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Speaking to the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Gen. Clark said American leaders should strengthen the partnership with Pakistan - including sharing intelligence on al Qaeda operations - and promote economic development in Afghanistan to undercut the drug trade that's fueled by poppy harvesting.
Gen. Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate, praised President Obama for taking his time in developing an Afghanistan strategy and said that any troop increase should wait until a firm endgame has been established for U.S. involvement in the country.
"The legacy of Vietnam really looms over these discussions," said Gen. Clark, reflecting on his experience in Vietnam and the arc of one of the nation's most painful wars.
"It's particularly painful for me to see where we are in Afghanistan," he said.
U.S. forces commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has requested up to 60,000 more American troops to support international forces. Pressure has built over the past three months on Mr. Obama to decide whether to support that call.
But there are risks to waiting to make that decision.
In particular, waffling would undercut Afghan President Hamid Karzai's incentives to clean up his government and be a dedicated partner with the U.S., said Andrew F. Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"I think the incentive on [Karzai's] part goes up if he feels like the United States is engaged," he said.
Kim Kagan, president of the Institute for Study of War, pushed the timing point harder, saying that a lack of commitment poses serious threats to American soldiers.
"What the people of Afghanistan are looking for is a strong statement of commitment," Ms. Kagan told the House panel.
The question of timing has split Congress largely along partisan lines, with leading Republicans pushing harder in recent weeks for an answer from the White House, though the split is not absolute.
"How much longer can the military continue to go at this pace without an endpoint?" asked Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, questioning whether the armed forces could sustain another troop surge similar to the Iraq war influx. "I'm one of the few Republicans who has thanked the president for taking his time to determine what the strategy should be."
Rep. Steve Kagen, Wisconsin Democrat, drew an edgy comparison between Gen. Clark's suggestions for working within the country and former Vice President Dick Cheney's assertions with respect to rebuilding Iraq.
"In a way, what you're expressing is the Cheney philosophy," Mr. Kagen said of Gen. Clark's focus on working with the local government and developing domestic priorities in Afghanistan.
Gen. Clark emphasized that he wanted to focus on an exit strategy and a "minimalist" objective of routing terrorist activity from Afghanistan and that it would not be accomplished through military strategy alone.
"I'm not sure what the Cheney solution was to Iraq, but I can't associate myself with it," he said.