Via George Will, there’s the following exchange from 2009 between President Obama, General Petraeus, and Admiral Mullen about the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, taken from The Promise: President Obama, Year One, Jonathan Alter’s book on Obama’s first year:
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."
What’s the significance of that? At the time, the military (and the Republicans) were putting heavy pressure on Obama to add more troops to the losing effort. At the time, in a piece for Rolling Stone, I characterized it as a military insurrection against the White House: Petraeus was dropping hints about running for president in 2012 as a Republican, General McChrystal was threatening to quit if he didn’t get what he wanted, and he was giving speeches denouncing Vice President Biden’s less hawkish view that the Afghanistan war had to be circumscribed and limited to counterterrorism. In the end, Obama caved in to the generals, but he set a July 2011 deadline for the start of a US withdrawal.
Now we know, if Alter is right, that Obama sought and won a pledge from the brass that “no one is going to suggest we stay” if McChrystal can’t succeed in turning over the war to the Afghans by 2011. On Capitol Hill, there’s growing disenchantment with the whole war effort, although the establishment Democrats haven’t yet broken with the White House. That disenchantment will grow as it dawns on official Washington that the Afghan National Army and the police are never, ever going to be able to take control of the war. So the main issue between now and next summer is to hold Obama to his pledge to pull US forces out of Afghanistan starting next July.
Biden told Alter: “In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
Yesterday, as Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates testified at various hearings on Capitol Hill (without anyone losing consciousness this time), Senator Carl Levin expressed anger and frustration at Petraeus’s reluctance to endorse Obama’s 2011 deadline. (It’s widely known that Petraeus is unhappy with the timetable.) Having wrung an endorsement out of Petraeus, Levin, the committee chairman, said:
“I am glad to hear General Petraeus express his support for the decision to begin U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan in July 2011. I strongly believe it is essential for success in Afghanistan that everyone understand the urgency with which the Afghans need to take responsibility for their own security.”
Naturally, Senator John McCain expressed diametrically opposite views, saying that the withdrawal date “does not bode well for success in Afghanistan” and adding:
“If we sound an uncertain trumpet, not many will follow. And that’s what’s being sounded now.”