Will Petraeus Thwart Obama's Timetable for Withdrawal from Afghanistan?
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Less than a year ago, General David Petraeus saluted smartly and pledged his loyal support for President Obama’s decision to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. In December, when Obama decided (for the second time in 2009) to add tens of thousands of additional American forces to the war, he also slapped an 18-month deadline on the military to turn the situation around and begin handing security over to the bedraggled Afghan National Army and police. Speaking to the nation from West Point, Obama said that he’d ordered American forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan at that time.
Here’s the exchange, between Obama, Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by Jonathan Alter in his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One:
OBAMA: "I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"
PETRAEUS: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame."
OBAMA: "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
PETRAEUS: "Yes, sir, in agreement."
MULLEN: "Yes, sir."
That seems unequivocal, doesn’t it? Vice President Joe Biden, famously dissed as Joe Bite-Me by one of the now-disgraced aides of General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone profile that got him fired, seems to think so. Said Biden, again according to Alter: “In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the U.S. military, however, things are rarely what they seem. Petraeus, the Centcom commander “demoted” in order to replace McChrystal as U.S. war commander in Afghanistan, seems to be having second thoughts about what will happen next July -- and those second thoughts are being echoed and amplified by a phalanx of hawks, neoconservatives, and spokesmen for the counterinsurgency (COIN) cult, including Henry Kissinger, the Heritage Foundation, and the editorial pages of the Washington Post. Chiming in, too, are the lock-step members of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, led by Senator John McCain.
In testimony before Congress just last week, Petraeus chose his words carefully, but clearly wasn’t buying the notion that the July deadline means much, nor did he put significant stock in the fact that President Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom review of Afghan policy in December. According to the White House, that review will be a make-or-break assessment of whether the Pentagon is making any progress in the nine-year-long conflict against the Taliban.
In his recent Senate testimony -- before he fainted, and afterwards -- Petraeus minimized the significance of the December review and cavalierly declared that he “would not make too much of it.” Pressed by McCain, the general flouted Biden’s view by claiming that the deadline is a date “when a process begins [and] not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits.”
The Right’s Marching Orders for the President
Petraeus’s defiant declaration that he wasn’t putting much stock in the president's intending to hold the military command accountable for its failure in Afghanistan next December earned him an instant rebuke from the White House. Now, that same Petraeus is in charge.
The dispute over the meaning of July 2011 is, and will remain, at the very heart of the divisions within the Obama administration over Afghan policy.
Last December, in that West Point speech, Obama tried to split the difference, giving the generals what they wanted -- a lot more troops -- but fixing a date for the start of a withdrawal. It was hardly a courageous decision. Under intense pressure from Petraeus, McChrystal, and the GOP, Obama assented to the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops, ignoring the fact that McChrystal’s unseemly lobbying for the escalation amounted to a Douglas MacArthur-like defiance of the primacy of civilian control of the military. (Indeed, after a speech McChrystal gave in London insouciantly rejecting Biden’s scaled-down approach to the war, Obama summoned the runaway general to a tarmac outside Copenhagen and read him the riot act in Air Force One.)