If you're an antiwar activist, the news from Afghanistan ought to be somewhat encouraging. Not only is the Obama administration sticking to its guns concerning the July, 2011, deadline for the start of a drawdown, but the NATO summit this week in Portugal will fix 2014 as the end point for US and NATO combat forces, a deadline that President Karzai of Afghanistan has endorsed vociferously. That's not good enough, of course, since it still means four more years of war and, even then, an uncertain timetable for removing residual (i.e., "non-combat") troops. (See: Iraq, where there are still 50,000 troops in the country and renewed talk about extending their deployment past the deadline of 2011 for complete withdrawal.)
But the good news embedded in all of this is that the discourse on Afghanistan is built around when to end the fighting and transition to the use of Afghan forces to do the fighting. And it's not about "winning" the war, nation-building and village-by-village, valley-by-valley, Petraeus-style counterinsurgency. That's a shift that Obama's White House has engineered, and it was laid out in detail in Bob Woodward's recent book, Obama's Wars.
If you're General Petraeus, the news from Afghanistan is disheartening. Disheartening enough, in fact, that according to the Washington Post Petraeus was sounding a bit like an insulted child, dropping hints that he might resign over Karzai's latest outburst.
Over the weekend, Karzai gave an extended interview to the Post in which he renewed much of his critique of the war. Last spring, you'll remember, Karzai launched a strong attack on US policy in his country. As I wrote for The Nation in April:
In a series of angry, frustrated outbursts, Karzai has declared that the United States is acting like an invader and occupier, that ‘there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance,' that the heavy-handed US and NATO military operations could transform the insurgency into a "national resistance" and that he himself might throw in his lot with the Taliban. He said, not without reason, that the Obama administration was trying to undercut his efforts to reach a settlement with the Taliban. And an Afghan who attended a meeting with Karzai told the New York Times, "He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them."
In his latest interview, Karzai lambasted American "mistakes," criticized private security firms, renewed charges that the United States was trying to rig Afghanistan's elections, and, when asked if the US government was "well-intentioned" in Afghanistan, said: "That has to be proven."
He also said that the United States must halt its night raids, the central plank of Petraeus' vaunted counterinsurgency plan for sending death squads against Taliban leaders, saying: "The raiding homes at night. Terrible. Terrible.… I don't like it in any manner, and the Afghan people don't like these raids in any manner. We don't like raids on our homes. This is a problem between us, and I hope this ends as soon as possible." Karzai added that the war on terrorism shouldn't be fought on Afghan soil, since the actual terrorists are elsewhere. And he renewed calls for talks with the Taliban.
All that didn't make Petraeus too happy, and the Post reports today that the general expressed "astonishment and disappointment" with Karzai's remarks. Though he probably isn't going to quit over this, aides to Petraeus weren't ready to say it's impossible, but they went as far as to hint at it, according to the Post: "Officials discounted early reports Sunday that Petraeus had threatened to resign."
For months now, both Karzai and NATO have been trying to highlight 2014 as the year that the war ends, and now, it appears, the Obama administration is on board with that. Though it's too distant—the war can certainly end before that, and in fact now is a good time for a cease-fire to jumpstart peace talks—it's good that the administration is talking now about an end to the war. The role of the opposition is put pressure on the White House to accelerate its timetable, and to focus on diplomacy—not just talks with the Taliban, but with all of the key international players, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.