How to Schedule a War: The Incredible Shrinking Withdrawal Date
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Going, going, gone! You can almost hear the announcer’s voice throbbing with excitement, only we’re not talking about home runs here, but about the disappearing date on which, for the United States and its military, the Afghan War will officially end.
Practically speaking, the answer to when it will be over is: just this side of never. If you take the word of our Afghan War commander, the secretary of defense, and top officials of the Obama administration and NATO, we’re not leaving any time soon. As with any clever time traveler, every date that's set always contains a verbal escape hatch into the future.
In my 1950s childhood, there was a cheesy (if thrilling) sci-fi flick, The Incredible Shrinking Man, about a fellow who passed through a radioactive cloud in the Pacific Ocean and soon noticed that his suits were too big for him. Next thing you knew, he was living in a doll house, holding off his pet cat, and fighting an ordinary spider transformed into a monster. Finally, he disappeared entirely leaving behind only a sonorous voice to tell us that he had entered a universe where “the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle.”
In recent weeks, without a radioactive cloud in sight, the date for serious drawdowns of American troops in Afghanistan has followed a similar path toward the vanishing point and is now threatening to disappear “over the horizon” (a place where, we are regularly told, American troops will lurk once they have finally handed their duties over to the Afghan forces they are training).
If you remember, back in December 2009 President Obama spoke of July 2011 as a firm date to “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan,” the moment assumedly when the beginning of the end of the war would come into sight. In July of this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke of 2014 as the date when Afghan security forces "will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country."
Administration officials, anxious about the effect that 2011 date was having on an American public grown weary of an unpopular war and on an enemy waiting for us to depart, grabbed Karzai's date and ran with it (leaving many of his caveats about the war the Americans were fighting, particularly his desire to reduce the American presence, in the dust). Now, 2014 is hyped as the new 2011.
It has, in fact, been widely reported that Obama officials have been working in concert to “play down” the president’s 2011 date, while refocusing attention on 2014. In recent weeks, top administration officials have been little short of voluble on the subject. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (“ We're not getting out. We're talking about probably a years-long process."), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, attending a security conference in Australia, all “cited 2014... as the key date for handing over the defense of Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves.” The New York Times headlined its report on the suddenly prominent change in timing this way: “U.S. Tweaks Message on Troops in Afghanistan.”
Quite a tweak. Added Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller: “The message shift is effectively a victory for the military, which has long said the July 2011 deadline undermined its mission by making Afghans reluctant to work with troops perceived to be leaving shortly.”
Inflection Points and Aspirational Goals
Barely had 2014 risen into the headlines, however, before that date, too, began to be chipped away. As a start, it turned out that American planners weren’t talking about just any old day in 2014, but its last one. As Lieutenant General William Caldwell, head of the NATO training program for Afghan security forces, put it while holding a Q&A with a group of bloggers, “They’re talking about December 31st, 2014. It’s the end of December in 2014... that [Afghan] President Karzai has said they want Afghan security forces in the lead.”