This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Less than a year ago, General David Petraeus saluted smartly and pledged his loyal support for President Obama’s decision to start withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. In December, when Obama decided (for the second time in 2009) to add tens of thousands of additional American forces to the war, he also slapped an eighteen-month deadline on the military to turn the situation around and begin handing security over to the bedraggled Afghan National Army and police. Speaking to the nation from West Point, Obama said that he’d ordered American forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan at that time.
Here’s the exchange, between Obama, Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by Jonathan Alter in his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One:
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."
That seems unequivocal, doesn’t it? Vice President Joe Biden, famously dissed as "Joe Bite-Me" by one of the now-disgraced aides of General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone profile that got him fired, seems to think so. Said Biden, again according to Alter: "In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."
In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the US military, however, things are rarely what they seem. Petraeus, the Centcom commander "demoted" in order to replace McChrystal as U. war commander in Afghanistan, seems to be having second thoughts about what will happen next July—and those second thoughts are being echoed and amplified by a phalanx of hawks, neoconservatives and spokesmen for the counterinsurgency (COIN) cult, including Henry Kissinger, the Heritage Foundation and the editorial pages of the Washington Post. Chiming in, too, are the lock-step members of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, led by Senator John McCain.
In testimony before Congress just last week, Petraeus chose his words carefully, but clearly wasn’t buying the notion that the July deadline means much, nor did he put significant stock in the fact that President Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom review of Afghan policy in December. According to the White House, that review will be a make-or-break assessment of whether the Pentagon is making any progress in the nine-year-long conflict against the Taliban.
In his recent Senate testimony—before he fainted, and afterwards—Petraeus minimized the significance of the December review and cavalierly declared that he "would not make too much of it." Pressed by McCain, the general flouted Biden’s view by claiming that the deadline is a date "when a process begins [and] not the date when the US heads for the exits."
The Right’s Marching Orders for the President
Petraeus’s defiant declaration that he wasn’t putting much stock in the president’s intending to hold the military command accountable for its failure in Afghanistan next December earned him an instant rebuke from the White House. Now, that same Petraeus is in charge.
The dispute over the meaning of July 2011 is, and will remain, at the very heart of the divisions within the Obama administration over Afghan policy.
Last December, in that West Point speech, Obama tried to split the difference, giving the generals what they wanted—a lot more troops—but fixing a date for the start of a withdrawal. It was hardly a courageous decision. Under intense pressure from Petraeus, McChrystal and the GOP, Obama assented to the addition of 30,000 US troops, ignoring the fact that McChrystal’s unseemly lobbying for the escalation amounted to a Douglas MacArthur-like defiance of the primacy of civilian control of the military. (Indeed, after a speech McChrystal gave in London insouciantly rejecting Biden’s scaled-down approach to the war, Obama summoned the runaway general to a tarmac outside Copenhagen and read him the riot act in Air Force One.)
If Obama’s Afghan decision was a cave-in to the brass and a potential generals’ revolt, the president also added that kicker of a deadline to the mix, not only placating his political base and minimizing Democratic unhappiness in Congress, but creating a trap of sorts for Petraeus and McChrystal. The message was clear enough: deliver the goods, and fast, or we’re heading out, whether the job is finished or not.
Since then, Petraeus and McChrystal—backed by their chief enabler, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican holdover appointed to his position by George W. Bush—took every chance they could to downplay and scoff at the deadline.
By appointing Petraeus last Wednesday, Obama took the easy way out of the crisis created by McChrystal’s shocking comments in Rolling Stone. It might not be inappropriate to quote that prescient British expert on Afghan policy, Peter Townsend, who said of the appointment: "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."
On the other hand, Petraeus is not simply another McChrystal. While McChrystal implemented COIN doctrine, mixing in his obsession with "kinetic operations" by US Special Forces, Petraeus literally wrote the book—namely, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
If the COIN cult has a guru (whom all obey unquestioningly), it’s Petraeus. The aura that surrounds him, especially among the chattering classes of the Washington punditocracy, is palpable, and he has a vast well of support among Republicans and assorted right-wingers on Capitol Hill, including the Holy Trinity: John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman. Not surprisingly, there have been frequent mentions of Petraeus as a candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2012, although Obama’s deft selection of Petraeus seems, once and for all, to have ruled out that option, since the general will be very busy on the other side of the globe for quite a while.
Even before the announcement that Petraeus had the job, the right’s mighty Wurlitzer had begun to blast out its critique of the supposedly pernicious effects of the July deadline. The Heritage Foundation, in an official statement, proclaimed: "The artificial Afghanistan withdrawal deadline has obviously caused some of our military leaders to question our strategy in Afghanistan…. We don’t need an artificial timeline for withdrawal. We need a strategy for victory."
Writing in the Washington Post on June 24, Henry Kissinger cleared his throat and harrumphed: "The central premise [of Obama’s strategy] is that, at some early point, the United States will be able to turn over security responsibilities to an Afghan government and national army whose writ is running across the entire country. This turnover is to begin next summer. Neither the premise nor the deadline is realistic…. Artificial deadlines should be abandoned."
And the Post itself, in the latest of a long-running series of post-9/11 hawkish editorials, gave Obama his marching orders: "He…should clarify what his July 2011 deadline means. Is it the moment when ‘you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out,’ as Vice President Biden has said, or ‘the point at which a process begins…at a rate to be determined by conditions at the time,’ as General Petraeus testified? We hope that the appointment of General Petraeus means the president’s acceptance of the general’s standard."
Is the COIN Cult Ascendant?
It’s too early to say whether Obama’s decision to name Petraeus to replace his protégé McChrystal carries any real significance when it comes to the evolution of his Afghan war policy. The McChrystal crisis erupted so quickly that Obama had no time to carefully consider who might replace him and Petraeus undoubtedly seemed like the obvious choice, if the point was to minimize the domestic political risks involved.
Still, it’s worrying. Petraeus’s COIN policy logically demands a decade-long war, involving labor-intensive (and military-centric) nation-building, waged village by village and valley by valley, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless US, NATO and Afghan casualties, including civilians. That idea doesn’t in the least square with the idea that significant numbers of troops will start leaving Afghanistan next summer. Indeed, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer with long experience in the Middle East and South Asia, who headed Obama’s first Afghan policy review in February 2009, told me (for an article in Rolling Stone last month) that it’s not inconceivable the military will ask for even more troops, not agree to fewer, next year.
The Post is right, however, that Obama needs to grapple seriously with the deep divisions in his administration. Having ousted one rebellious general, the president now has little choice but to confront—or cave in to—the entire COIN cult, including its guru.
If Obama decides to take them on, he’ll have the support of many traditionalists in the US armed forces who reject the cult’s preaching. Above all, his key ally is bound to be those pesky facts on the ground.
Afghanistan is the place where theories of warfare go to die, and if the COIN theory isn’t dead yet, it’s utterly failed so far to prove itself. The vaunted February offensive into the dusty hamlet of Marja in Helmand province has unraveled. The offensive into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a seething tangle of tribal and religious factions, once touted as the potential turning point of the entire war, has been postponed indefinitely. After nine years, the Pentagon has little to show for its efforts, except ever-rising casualties and money spent.
Perhaps Obama is still counting on US soldiers to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and win the war, even though administration officials have repeatedly rejected the notion that Afghanistan can be won militarily. David Petraeus or no, the reality is that the war will end with a political settlement involving President Karzai’s government, various Afghan warlords and power brokers, the remnants of the old Northern Alliance, the Taliban and the Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan.
Making all that work and winning the support of Afghanistan’s neighbors—including India, Iran and Russia—will be exceedingly hard. If Obama’s diplomats managed to pull it off, the Afghanistan that America left behind might be modestly stable. On the other hand, it won’t be pretty to look at it. It will be a decentralized mess, an uneasy balance between enlightened Afghans and benighted, Islamic fundamentalist ones, and no doubt many future political disagreements will be settled not in conference rooms but in gun battles. Three things it won’t be: it won’t be Switzerland. It won’t be a base for Al Qaeda. And it won’t be host to tens of thousands of US and NATO troops.
The only silver lining in the Petraeus cloud is that the general has close ties to the military in Pakistan, which slyly accepts US aid while funneling support to the insurgency in Afghanistan. If Obama decides to pursue a political and diplomatic solution between now and next July, Petraeus’s Pakistan connection would be useful indeed. Time, however, is running out.