Wars will come and go, but you only get one chance at reelection.
Senior White House officials wanted all of the 33,000 U.S. “surge” troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by next spring. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, was adamant they stay until the end of 2012. The deadlock was broken by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who sold Obama and his top civilian aides on a compromise plan that will leave most of the reinforcements in Afghanistan through next September but ensure they’re back well before the November elections…
The debate effectively boiled down to a matter of months. Petraeus agreed that 10,000 troops could be safely withdrawn this year, but he wanted to keep some of the remaining 23,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2012 and to have the flexibility to extend some of their tours into early 2013 if conditions deteriorated, according to officials with knowledge of the deliberations. Obama’s civilian advisers, pointing to intelligence assessments showing that the U.S. had killed 20 of al-Qaida’s top 30 leaders in the region, wanted the final 23,000 surge troops to leave Afghanistan next spring, with the last of the forces returning home roughly around March.
For nearly two weeks, neither side budged. Petraeus made it clear he opposed beginning the drawdown during the summer, traditionally the time of Afghanistan’s most intense fighting, according to an official familiar with his thinking. The general wanted his successor, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, to be able to move troops from southern Afghanistan, where coalition forces have pushed the Taliban out of many of their former strongholds, to eastern Afghanistan, where conditions have been deteriorating for months. Such a move would take time, and Petraeus argued that the surge troops should be kept in Afghanistan through the end of the year to ensure they had enough time to mount a full counterinsurgency campaign in eastern Afghanistan.
Two officers with ties to Petraeus confirmed for National Journal that he disagreed with Gates’s compromise plan for the surge troops, and another official said, tartly, ‘No one is talking about succeeding or winning… the phrase [Wednesday night] was bringing this war to a ‘responsible’ conclusion. I’m not really sure what that means.” What it means, apparently, is that instead of keeping troops in the south to hold off the Taliban while NATO’s offensive against the Haqqani network in the east begins, it’s now more of an either/or decision. Which is to say, instead of clearing and holding territory, soon we’ll be back to playing whack-a-mole. And while the difference between the Obama/Gates plan and Petraeus’s recommendation might not seem large — all surge troops out by September 2012 instead of early 2013 — it does have battlefield consequences:
“[P]utting a September 2012 expiration tag on the rest of the surge raises real concerns,” added [former Afghanistan commander] General [David] Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a policy research center. “That’s the middle of the fighting season.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, another policy research center, said the September pullout date really means that many of those troops will stop carrying out their missions months earlier.
The president’s timetable, he said, “will require troops to spend most of the summer on the downsizing effort when they arguably should spend most of the summer fighting and taking away safe havens from extremists.”
Mr. O’Hanlon and General Barno said it was hard to fathom the military logic of setting a withdrawal deadline for the surge right in the middle of the fighting season. “This is a rushed ending to what has been a fairly effective surge,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
That last bit is the Times’s way of acknowledging that it’s no coincidence that O will have all surge troops out just two months before he meets the voters at the polls. Petraeus was asked about that, in fact, at today’s hearing to confirm his appointment as CIA chief. Here’s what happened, via NRO’s Dan Foster:
After Petraeus yielded that the Obama timeline poses a “greater risk to the accomplishment of the various objectives” of the war than options recommended by theater commanders, Sens. Rubio and McCain both tried to get Petraeus to explain why the September 2012 date — halfway through the “fighting season” — was chosen. Was there a military or strategic significance to that date? Petraeus replied that it wasn’t military conditions, but “risks having to do with other considerations” that led to the Obama administration’s decision. But he repeatedly refused to elaborate on what those other considerations are. I’ll give you three guesses.
The first two don’t count! As a gloss on the above, I recommend two short pieces from WaPo. The first comes from prominent hawk Robert Kagan, who asserts that the “entire military leadership believes the president’s decision is a mistake.” No names are offered, but given Kagan’s contacts in military circles and the fact that his take jibes with the Petraeus/Barno/O’Hanlon take, I don’t much doubt it. The second is from Richard Cohen, who sees last night’s speech as final confirmation of American decline and expects a Vietnam-style collapse in Afghanistan once we’re finally out, which seems eminently plausible to everyone except, I guess, Hamid Karzai. Don’t worry about him, though: He’s cagey enough to already be lining up new allies to fill the void once we’re gone. According to the AP, his inner circle of fundamentalist-nut advisors seem to have a fondness for Iran.
Here’s Petraeus at today’s hearing being a good soldier in downplaying his disagreement with Obama but acknowledging that the timeline for withdrawal is a tad more “aggressive” than he would have liked. Ironically, now that we’re moving away from counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and towards counterterrorism, that means greater responsibilities for the CIA and its drone campaign, both of which will soon be commanded by … David Petraeus.