I’m not talking about winning the war in Afghanistan, whatever that means these days. I’m talking about winning the war on the end of the war in Afghanistan.
American military officials are building
a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from
Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing
pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding
the war down quickly.
With the administration unable yet to point to much tangible evidence
of progress, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who assumed command in Afghanistan
last month from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is taking several steps to
emphasize hopeful signs on the ground that, he will argue, would make a
rapid withdrawal unwise. Meanwhile, a rising generation of young
officers, who have become expert over the past nine years in the art of
counterinsurgency, have begun quietly telling administration officials
that they need time to get their work done.
“Their argument,” said one senior administration official, who would
not speak for attribution about the internal policy discussions, “is
that while we’ve been in Afghanistan for 9 years, only in the past 12
months or so have we started doing this right, and we need to give it
some time and think about what our long-term presence in Afghanistan
should look like.”
No military commander in the history of armed conflict has asked for
less battlefield resources. The drive from the military for a longer,
stronger, deeper commitment should be baked into the cake of the
Administration’s thinking on the July 2011 transition point.
But, the offensive appears to already be working. Both Joe Biden and
Robert Gates have sought to minimize the importance of July 2011,
saying that any withdrawals would be limited, perhaps as few as a few
thousand troops. You can be sure General David Petraeus will join them
in that assessment this Sunday, when he appears on Meet the Press.
Remember, this would be a total reversal of Petraeus’ own word. In Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise, he describes a meeting between Obama, Petraeus and former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal:
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.”
The July 2011 transition date was the necessary concession by the
military commanders in exchange for getting a larger commitment of
forces in December of last year. It wasn’t something to be thrown over
because “we need to give the counter-insurgency some time.” In December
2009, David Petraeus said affirmatively that the military would be able
to hand over operations to the Afghan National Army, and if they
couldn’t, they should leave. That was the agreement. That was the
Petraeus is already breaking it. And it’s because the war hasn’t
gone well. Petraeus hopes to scrounge up whatever progress he can find
to justify staying longer.
So far the White House is staying neutral in this debate, with a
formal assessment to come in December. Their top officials have
vacillated between affirming a continued commitment to the region and
stressing that such a commitment would not be open-ended.
By the way, we have a new Friedman Unit:
At the core of the timetables, they say,
is what White House officials call the “two-year rule.” During the
review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, Mr. Gates made the
argument, according to one participant in the White House Situation Room
discussions, that “in any particular location you should be able to
clear, build, hold and transfer” to the Afghan forces within two years.
Military officials said two years was roughly how it took to make
headway in difficult places, once troops were in place.
“If it takes longer than that,” the official said, “there’s a problem, and you have the temptation to drift.”
Those two years are rapidly approaching. The counterinsurgency
policy has actually been in place since March 2009, with more resources,
from an initial escalation of 21,000, than during the Bush
Administration. The White House starts the two-year clock in June 2009.
But either way, nobody, not even Petraeus, can say that the time frame
has been rushed.