"That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended -- because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."
That was the commitment President Obama made when he announced the military escalation of American troops in Afghanistan before an audience of cadets at West Point last year. That was then, this is now. The media tour that General David Petraeus embarked on this week demonstrates that a withdrawal is, in fact, fully underway - not of US troops from Afghanistan, but rather, of the president's assurance that we do not have an open ended military commitment to the Karzai government in Afghanistan. The Petraeus media tour is making it crystal clear - July 2011 is more political gesture than time-frame for the withdrawal of US forces.
Times have changed considerably since Vice President Biden put an exclamation point on the administration's July 2011 withdrawal date when he said that you could "bet on it" that a "substantial" number of US troops would be heading home next July.
"The president did not send me over here to seek a graceful exit", General Petraeus told the New York Times this week. And, "certainly yes", he told David Gregory when asked on Meet the Press if he may very well recommend that the president not withdraw a single US soldier in July 2011 if he did not believe that conditions warranted it.
For weeks administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Gates, have marched to Capitol Hill to assure lawmakers that the July 2011 "withdrawal" date is really no such thing. The withdrawal of our forces will be based on "conditions" not a time-frame, they repeated. As long as certain conditions exist on the ground in Afghanistan, we will continue to have troops there. There is no deadline. Our military commitment to Afghanistan is open.
"This is a date when a process begins that is conditions-based", Petraeus explained to David Gregory on Meet the Press, "And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and the security forces and various governmental institutions, and that enables a, quote, "responsible" drawdown of our forces."
As he spoke, I began reading a front page story in Sunday's Washington Post describing how security conditions in the once stable northern Afghanistan are deteriorating rapidly. I thought about the inconvenient truths highlighted by the military documents released by Wikilinks: the poor state of the Afghan army despite a $27 billion US investment in their training; the endemic level of corruption in the Afghan government that costs the citizens of the fifth poorest country on earth one billion dollars per year in bribes; the funneling of US funds to the Taliban via our "allies" in the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. Not to worry, the General assured the Washington Post, there are "incipient signs of progress" in Afghanistan. Which brought to mind the assurances of another American General, William Westmorland, who told a skeptical American public more than four decades ago that "peace is at hand" in Viet Nam.
Americans are turning against nation building half way around the world at a price of over $100 billion a year and thousands of US soldiers lives. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last week shows that the number of Americans who have a favorable view of the President's Afghanistan policy has dropped by nine points since the spring. A majority of House Democrats voted last month to require that the administration come up with an exit strategy with clear goals, objectives and a specific time-frame. Not a single member of the House Democratic leadership took to the floor to defend the president's Afghanistan policy during the debate over the administration's Supplemental Appropriation request of more than $30 billion more for the war in Afghanistan.
General Petraeus has been called upon to divide his time and attention between winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan and winning hearts and minds among the American electorate. It is probably no coincidence that he is doing so in the midst of dropping poll numbers for the administration's policy and the toughest electoral climate for Democrats since 1994. Unemployment is at 9 ½ percent here at home and last week's jobless claims spiked upward.
The fact is that you can either have a scheduled withdrawal or a conditions based withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan. You can't have both, notwithstanding the parsing of words by General Petraeus and the Obama administration. The president had it right the first time: Close the open ended military commitment to the Karzai government in Afghanistan. Particularly if the nation he is really most interested in building is his own.