McClatchy: Obama to Renege on Afghan Drawdown

Remember what Vice-President Biden told
Jonathan Alter in The Promise?

At the conclusion of an interview in his West Wing office,
Biden was adamant. "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of
people moving out. Bet on it," Biden said as he wheeled to leave the
room, late for lunch with the president. He turned at the door and
said once more, "Bet. On. It."

Let's hope for Alter's sake he didn't put any serious money down on
Biden's wager. Because that "Promise" is starting to look pretty


The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly
walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in
Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama's
pledge that he'd begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011,
administration and military officials have told

Why is this happening, according to McClatchy? Several
reasons are cited.

"U.S. officials realized that conditions in Afghanistan
were unlikely to allow a speedy withdrawal."

"During our assessments, we looked at if we continue to move forward
at this pace, how long before we can fully transition to the Afghans?
And we found that we cannot fully transition to the Afghans by July
2011," said one senior administration official.

On the face of it, this statement does not make sense. First of all,
according to previous, repeated statements of US officials, including
President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, the date was not
supposed to be conditions-based. The pace of the drawdown was
supposed to be conditions based. So, if the McClatchy story
is true, this is a big reversal of an Obama promise.

Second, the longstanding publicly stated policy that the Obama
Administration is, according to McClatchy, about to publicly
walk away from, did not include a promise of a "speedy
withdrawal." So what these US officials are really telling
McClatchy is not "we realized that conditions don't
permit a speedy withdrawal," since these officials were never
intending to carry out a "speedy withdrawal," but that according to
them, conditions do not permit any meaningful withdrawal at all
that starts in July 2011

Third, it was never US policy to "fully transition to the Afghans" by
July 2011; no human being on planet Earth, that I am aware of, ever
stated or believed that that was going to happen. July 2011 was
supposed to mark the beginning of the transition. So this
statement is like saying, "During our assessments, we realized that it
is sometimes cold in parts of Alaska." Instead, what these officials
are saying is: according to our assessments, we won't be able to
transition to Afghan control by next summer to a sufficient degree
to withdraw enough troops to plausibly call it a meaningful

What can we conclude from this?

First, the "surge" was a military failure. This should be
openly acknowledged by everyone. Every US general and laptop bombadier
pundit should have to write it on the blackboard 100 times: "The surge
was a military failure."

But more importantly, the political policy in which the
"surge" was embedded was a political failure. By coupling his
capitulation to the military on the surge with his insistence on a
date to begin troop withdrawals, we were told, Obama had politically
outfoxed the military. Regardless of whether the surge succeeded or
failed militarily, the troops would begin to come home anyway, and the
military had signed off on that. If the McClatchy report is
true, this was all hot air and rationalization. The surge failed
militarily, and the conclusion being drawn is that the troops have to

A second reason is cited:

Pakistanis had concluded wrongly that July 2011 would mark
the beginning of the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

That perception, one Pentagon adviser said, has convinced Pakistan's
military - which is key to preventing Taliban sympathizers from
infiltrating Afghanistan - to continue to press for a political
settlement instead of military action.

This is striking. Indeed, the Obama Administration's announcement that
US troops would begin withdrawing next summer has been widely credited
with pushing forward efforts to achieve a political settlement. What
is striking about this is that the Pentagon is explicitly
saying that from the Pentagon's point of view, a political
settlement must be prevented
and therefore the timetable to begin
withdrawal is bad because it was pushing forward prospects for
a political settlement

It's not shocking that Pentagon officials think this; it's shocking
that they say it openly. It imitates Robert Mankoff 's recent
New Yorkercartoon
in which a general says:

"Well, I'm an optimist - I still think peace can be

A third reason is cited:

Last week's midterm elections also have eased pressure on
the Obama administration to begin an early withdrawal. Earlier this
year, some Democrats in Congress pressed to cut off funding for
Afghanistan operations. With Republicans in control of the House of
Representatives beginning in January, however, there'll be less push
for a drawdown. The incoming House Armed Services chairman, Rep.

Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., told Reuters last week that he opposed
setting the date.

It is beyond dispute that Republican control of the House is a big
setback for pressure to withdraw troops. But several things should be

First, Rep. McKeon did indeed tell Reuters that he opposed
setting the date. But he alsotold
that he saw the date as a done deal and
wouldn't press to change it:

Reuters: But the actual deadline itself, you're not going
to press for that to be changed?

McKeon: No. I think that's installed.

So, using Rep. McKeon's statement to Reuters as an excuse to
throw away the drawdown date is pretty weak.

Second, while leadership of the House and House committees is
obviously a very big deal, the actual composition of the House with
respect to opinions on the war in Afghanistan hasn't changed all that
much. As I noted
last week
, 12 Democratic incumbents defeated last week were
supporters of the McGovern amendment which would have required the
President to establish a timetable for military withdrawal from
Afghanistan. 39 Democratic incumbents defeated last week voted against
the McGovern Amendment. The overwhelming majority of the 153 Democrats
in the House who wanted a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan
are still in the House or were replaced by Democrats, joined by a new
group of Republicans, some of whom - it's not clear yet how many - may
be skeptics on the war.

Third, Democrats still control the Senate, and Armed Services chair
Senator Levin has been a strong supporter of the July 2011 date, which
he has said is needed to put pressure on the Afghan government.
Senator-Elect Rand Paul recently
that the Senate and the House need to debate the
Afghanistan war, and that the arguments and authorization of force
from ten years ago cannot justify U.S. policy today. He has also said
that military spending has to be on the table for cuts, and that the
wars have to be part of that discussion.

Finally, there is a wild card. If you were going to draw up a list of
five things that President Obama could do that would be likely to draw
a primary challenge in 2012, throwing the Afghanistan drawdown in the
trash would surely be on that list. From the point of view of the
White House political people, that's a real political threat, even if
they see Obama's re-nomination as a done deal: they don't want to see
some Eugene McCarthy candidate take a third of the Democratic primary
vote in New Hampshire or Iowa.

So, publicly walking away from the July 2011 drawdown is a "very big
deal," and the White House political people should be screaming.

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