Barack Obama's aides can pat themselves on the back today; they have succeeded in spinning the president's new troop surge as a simultaneous plan for leaving Afghanistan. And I can see honest logic there: By delivering a hard punch to the Taliban, you hope to create conditions that allow even flawed Afghan security forces to get on their feet, which may then allow for a quicker U.S. exit. But that's been the plan in Iraq for about six years and we've still barely drawn down from that morass.
I wonder how many Americans who may be paying only cursory attention appreciate the thinness of Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Subsequent commentary from administration officials has made this point clearer than Obama did last night.
First, there was Michèle A. Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy, who told the New York Times this morning that "The pace, the nature and the duration of that transition are to be determined down the road by the president based on the conditions on the ground." George Bush was saying the same basic thing beginning around 2004.
Next, there was Centcom commander David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq surge, who today made an unlikely appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Petraeus acknowledged a "tension" in Obama's speech between a desire to ramp up troop levels and bring the fight to the Taliban and a desire to start coming home. But when it comes to expectations about a near-term withdrawal, the general took care to emphasize something: "Conditions-based [are] very important words that need to be focused on."
And then there was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in her testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, was asked by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham whether the July 2011 had "locked us in" to a withdrawal. "I do not believe we have locked ourselves in to leaving," Clinton responded, before repeating the core administration talking point: "By July 2011 there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions." But "the beginning of a responsible transition" can mean almost anything. In theory it can be nothing more than a changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the airport.
Or it can mean something like what Defense Secretary Robert Gates described this morning at that Senate hearing. Asked by John McCain whether July 2011 amounts to an "an arbitrary date" to begin a transition. Gates replied that the national security team concluded "that we would be in a position, particularly in uncontested areas, where we would be able to begin that transition." Note the emphasis: particularly in uncontested areas. Yes, one would certainly hope that America can withdraw from areas the Taliban aren't even contesting within eighteen months. But there won't be many American troops in those places to begin with. People hoping that this war will come to a swift end beginning in the summer of 2011 would do well to understand that now, or risk severe disappointment down the road.
More on Obama's Afghanistan Speech:
"Obama's Inconsistencies," by Richard Just
"More On Obama's Inconsistencies," by John B. Judis
"Sorry, But I Hear Echoes of Vietnam," by John B. Judis