Obama: "The Afghan war as we understand it is over" in 2014

Emphasis on “as we understand it.” Afghan forces will start to take the lead on security next summer, confirming the rumors back in February that some sort of accelerated shift in responsibility was in the offing, but the target date for substantial withdrawal remains the end of 2014 — and beyond that, diplomatically and financially, who knows. Over at WaPo, David Ignatius is already spitballing on how long it’ll be after we’re gone that the Taliban is back in control of the country. The thinking in diplomatic circles appears to be two years, so bear that in mind when you hear O and NATO apparatchiks promising “long-term” western support for Afghanistan. We’ll be there for them for the next decade if the current government remains more or less intact for that period and doesn’t give way to some jihadist barbarian junta. What are the odds of that, though? 20 to one? 50? 100?

If you missed it over the weekend, take three minutes for the NYT’s chronicle of another Obama “evolution,” from a 2009 surge strategy aimed at nation-building to a 2012 Rumsfeld-ian “light footprint” approach that all but throws in the towel while retaining some U.S. counterterror capabilities in country. This “evolution” didn’t take nearly as long as the other one did:

Mr. Obama concluded in his first year that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy, and that the far greater threat to the United States was an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan. So he narrowed the goals in Afghanistan, and narrowed them again, until he could make the case that America had achieved limited objectives in a war that was, in any traditional sense, unwinnable.

“Just think how big a reversal of approach this was in just two years,” one official involved in the administration debates on Afghanistan said. “We started with what everyone thought was a pragmatic vision but, at its core, was a plan for changing the way Afghanistan is wired. We ended up thinking about how to do as little wiring as possible.”…

Mr. Obama began to question why Americans were dying to prop up a leader, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who was volatile, unreliable and willing to manipulate the ballot box. Faced with an economic crisis at home and a fiscal crisis that Mr. Obama knew would eventually require deep limits on Pentagon spending, he was also shocked, they said, by what the war’s cost would be if the generals’ counterinsurgency plan were left on autopilot — $1 trillion over 10 years. And 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…

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.

I take it this means the ephemeral peace talks with the Taliban are also over. The timetable is more enticing for them now than it’s ever been: Most troops gone by December 2014 and the rickety ANA in the lead as early as 13 months from now. They’d be insane to make a deal while the U.S. and NATO are sprinting for the exits, when even western foreign-policy wonks are treating the inevitability of a Talib takeover as a fait accompli. As for the boldfaced point about Pakistan, I’m as baffled as Jonathan Tobin is. If Pakistan’s the bigger threat to U.S. interests — and it is — what exactly is O’s strategy to neutralize that threat beyond the occasional drone strike in Waziristan? Zardari was at the NATO summit this weekend and Obama wouldn’t even meet with him, so angry is the White House that Pakistan hasn’t reopened U.S. supply routes after that NATO airstrike that killed a group of Pakistani troops back in November. Is the new thinking that Pakistan will behave more responsibly once Afghanistan is back under their thumb and safe from Indian domination? If so, we could have saved a lot of American lives by gift-wrapping the country and handing it back to them years ago.

One other point. I think O made the right call on the Bin Laden raid but I’ve never been able to reconcile it strategically with the idea of neutralizing the threat from Pakistan (as opposed to the threat from Al Qaeda specifically). From what I’ve gathered about the fallout from the raid, it humiliated the Pakistani leadership and further entrenched anti-American sentiment within the military and ISI; that hostility probably contributed to the decision later on to close down U.S. supply lines, as well as who knows how many Taliban/Haqqani attacks afterward inside Afghanistan sponsored by ISI as direct reprisals. None of this is meant as criticism of O — when you’ve got the man behind 9/11 in the crosshairs, you take him out, especially if he’s being sheltered by America’s most treacherous “ally.” But in my reading about the White House’s deliberations over whether to get Bin Laden, the prospect of Pakistani reaction seems to figure rather lightly. That’s an odd reaction for a group that believes that reining in the Pakistani terror state is more important that what jihadis like Bin Laden do in Afghanistan.

Exit quotation: “‘This should be a good issue for us,’ a Democratic strategist said. ‘If anyone was paying attention.'”

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