Compared to Afghanistan, where the United States has 100,000 troops and is fighting a full-blown war, President Obama’s unfortunate and poorly thought-out “limited war” against Libya is getting all the attention. But there is a crucial turning point coming in the Afghan war, namely, the July deadline for the start of an American withdrawal. Whether that withdrawal is a token one, involving a handful of troops, or the beginning of a significant, accelerating pullout of US forces, is yet to be determined.
Last week, at an event sponsored by the Century Foundation, I spoke to Gen. Douglas Lute, Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan, who serves on the National Security Council in the White House. When I asked Lute about a suggestion from Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress that the 30,000 troops added by Obama in December, 2009, could be withdrawn within six months, starting in July, Lute said that taking out that many forces is at the very highest end of what the administration is thinking about, though he didn’t rule it out. Far more likely, Lute said, the White House will order the orderly withdrawal of the surge over 12 to 18 months. That will leave about 70,000 Americans still fighting in Afghanistan in November, 2012, while giving the president room to argue that he’s winding down the war as he runs for reelection.
In turn, that means that if the administration intends to continue the pullout, it would draw down the rest of its forces by the end of 2014, the deadline that President Karzai and NATO have set for the transfer of security throughout Afghanistan to the Afghan army and police. (What happens after that is up for grabs, too, with various administration officials talking about an extended US military presence in Afghanistan after that, though at vastly reduced numbers.)
That’s not nearly fast enough to satisfy the antiwar wing of the Obama’s Democratic base, nor is it likely to convince most Americans—who’ve turned dramatically against the war—that a corner has been turned. It will take continuing pressure on the White House, starting now, to bolster the arguments of those inside the administration that a far faster withdrawal needs to happen. Five more years of war in Afghanistan, until the end of 2014, is a depressing thought.
The Washington Post, in a disturbing article this week, described the battle inside the Obama administration over what to do. Once again, that battle pits the generals against President Obama and has advisers, in a reprise of the struggle outlined in Bob Woodward’s brilliant book, Obama’s Wars. According to the Post, in the article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, General David Petraeus is once again dragging his feet, refusing to give Obama an option for an accelerated pullout. He wrote:
“General David H. Petraeus, the top allied commander in Afghanistan, has not presented a recommendation on the withdrawal to his superiors at the Pentagon, but some senior officers and military planning documents have described the July pullout as small to insignificant, prompting deep concern within the White House.
“At a meeting of his war cabinet this month, Obama expressed displeasure with such characterizations of the withdrawal, according to three senior officials with direct knowledge of the session. ‘The president made it clear that he wants a meaningful drawdown to start in July,’ said one of the officials, who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.”
Leave aside, for a second, the fact that Obama is commander-in-chief, and that he can order the Pentagon to do his bidding, and fire its top officials if they won’t. Chandrasekaran goes on to write that the “options” being prepared for the president are so limited and narrow as to be laughable, and outrageous:
“Two senior military officials said one set of options being developed by staff officers in Kabul involves three choices: the removal of almost no forces; the withdrawal of a few thousand support personnel, including headquarters staff, engineers and logisticians; and the pullout of a brigade’s worth of troops—about 5,000 personnel—by culling a battalion of Marines in Helmand province that was added after the surge, a contingent of soldiers training Afghan security forces and an Army infantry battalion in either the country’s east or far west.”
That ain’t enough. Why is it, with public support for the war approaching zero, that Obama seems so reluctant to demand—and say so in public—that a significant and steady pullout will start in July? My guess is that, first, Obama is worried that if he starts a withdrawal before 2012, and then some terrorist attack strikes the United States, he’ll be blamed by the ever-opportunistic Republicans. Even if such an attack is a small one, and even if it has nothing at all to do with Afghanistan, the GOP’s hawks are going to accuse Obama of leaving the United States defenseless. Needless to say, it would be a bogus argument. If the president does intend to pull forces out before 2012, he’d better start inoculating Americans now about the possibility that Al Qaeda, even in its weakened state, from its bases in Pakistan, Yemen, or elsewhere, can still carry out limited but deadly strikes, and Americans must be strong enough to weather such an attack while keeping the counterterrorism focus on Al Qaeda’s remaining forces—and not on Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda doesn’t exist.
Second, Obama seems afraid to challenge the military brass head on. But both Secretary of Defense Gates and General Petraeus will likely be gone from their posts later this year, and it would do Obama well to select people to replace them who’d be allies against military pressure to continue the war. Inside the White House, it appears at Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon are loyal to Obama and likely to support Obama if he chooses to wind down the war quicker than the generals would like.