Getting Out of Afghanistan
I'm sure the president will be attacked for making it our policy to get the hell out of Afghanistan, but the only way I could be happier about it would be if he had made the decision sooner and it was implemented faster. Honestly, it's not entirely clear when he made the decision. He campaigned on getting out of Iraq so we could refocus on Afghanistan. But I always sensed that that rhetoric was calibrated to prevent him from looking weak as he called for an end to the war in Iraq. In any case, once elected he had immediate cause to doubt the wisdom of doubling down in Afghanistan:
The remaking of American strategy in Afghanistan began, though no one knew it at the time, in a cramped conference room in Mr. Obama’s transition headquarters in late 2008. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who had spent the last two years of the Bush administration trying to manage the many trade-offs necessary as the Iraq war consumed troop and intelligence resources needed in Afghanistan, arrived with a PowerPoint presentation.
The first slide that General Lute threw onto the screen caught the eye of Thomas E. Donilon, later President Obama’s national security adviser. “It said we do not have a strategy in Afghanistan that you can articulate or achieve,” Mr. Donilon recalled three years later. “We had been at war for eight years, and no one could explain the strategy.”
Partially because of his campaign rhetoric, and partially because the military brass was committed to the fight, Obama felt boxed into making a temporary surge of troops. But he wasn't happy about it:
“I think he hated the idea from the beginning,” one of his advisers said of the surge. “He understood why we needed to try, to knock back the Taliban. But the military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”
This adviser inadvertently provided an attack line for Romney. Why would a president order troops into battle if he wasn't 'all in'? But the truth was that he had concluded that the war's aims weren't realistic and the costs were not sustainable.
...the more he delved into what it would take to truly change Afghan society, the more he concluded that the task was so overwhelming that it would make little difference whether a large American and NATO force remained for 2 more years, 5 more years or 10 more years.
The surge was a way to give the Afghanistan government a chance, but the mission had changed. The mission was to shore things up and get out. And Obama wasn't going to get muscled again by the Pentagon:
By early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit from Afghanistan. This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.
The key decisions had essentially been made already when Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his last months as commander in Afghanistan, arrived in Washington with a set of options for the president that called for a slow withdrawal of surge troops. He wanted to keep as many troops as possible in Afghanistan through the next fighting season, with a steep drop to follow. Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban. He said he “believed that we had a more limited set of objectives that could be accomplished by bringing the military out at a faster clip,” an aide reported.
After a short internal debate, Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton came up with a different option: end the surge by September 2012 — after the summer fighting season, but before the election. Mr. Obama concurred. But he was placing an enormous bet: his goals now focus largely on finishing off Al Qaeda and keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from going astray.
President Bush gave Obama two unwinnable wars to deal with. And he's dealt with them about as well as could be expected. When you hear Republicans criticize his decisions and his leadership, make sure you remember that. I've made my own criticisms. I don't think the surge was worth it. But I don't have to make these calls and somehow survive politically.