Yesterday, I had a chance to question General David Petraeus about President Obama’s Afghan timetable. From the transcript that follows, you’ll note that Petraeus, who repeatedly interrupted my questioning to preempt where I was trying to go, doesn’t even acknowledge that the president’s deadline for beginning the withdrawal of US forces is July, 2011. It leads one to suspect that if Petraeus, McChrystal, and Co. are ever going to leave Afghanistan, they’ll have to be dragged out kicking and screaming.
For the record, first let me quote President Obama, from his December 1 speech at West Point, on the deadline:
"These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."
And Obama noted, in the same speech, that support for setting a deadline wasn’t exactly unanimous:
"There are those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. … America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."
So yesterday, at his appearance before hundreds of national security experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, I got a chance to ask Petraeus about this, during a discussion moderated by Maren Leed. During her intro, Leed asked Petraeus about the "Washington clock," i.e., the political pressure in the US for quick progress. From the CSIS transcript:
MS. LEED: I’ll go right there. Bob.
DREYFUSS Good morning, General, I’m Bob Dreyfuss with The Nation magazine. I have two quick questions about Af-Pak. One is in reference to the Washington clock that Maren talked about. The president, as you know, has set a deadline of July 2011.
GEN. PETRAEUS: I think, wasn’t it August 2011?
DREYFUSS August 2011?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Okay. Don’t start sliding it to the left just yet. (Laughter.)
DREYFUSS: I think he was thinking about May. (Laughter.) Just, you know, not just to ‘demonstrate success,’ but actually, as I understand, to start a withdrawal.
GEN. PETRAEUS: Start a transition that is conditions-based of tasks from our forces to Afghan forces, again, in areas where those forces and the situation allow it. And the keywords are conditions-based. And you’ll recall this whole discussion when I was in Iraq about conditions-based as well.
I might point out, by the way, that people have said, well, General, you never agreed to timelines before. I’ve never been a wild fan of timelines, but at times, I have indeed announced timelines myself. Again, conditions-based ones, but in September 2007, in the testimony before the four committees on Capitol Hill, I did announce, for example, that the first of the surge brigades was going to go home in December 2007 and then laid out the rough proposal for the remaining four to go home as well. But sorry, go ahead.