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.
DREYFUSS: Well, in any case, when I read the president’s comment, is that perhaps the pace or the degree of the withdrawal might be conditions-based but in fact, a withdrawal would start on that date. So my question is, what kind of plans are you making? You know, as the contingency – since it isn’t that far away in military terms, what kind of plans are you –
GEN. PETRAEUS: It’s quite a ways away in military terms. I mean, don’t get me wrong, but I mean our focus right now, candidly, is on getting all of these forces on the ground is absolutely quickly as possible. And by the way, pay no attention to these – pay no attention to these reports that have said that you know, there’s some kind of difference of opinion here on how fast to deploy.
Everybody engaged in this from the president all the way down to the lowest ranking member of the deploying forces is making an effort to getting there as rapidly as is absolutely possible. The secretary committed to the president, I did as well in the Sit Room, that we would get, again, virtually all of the combat forces on the ground by the end of August.
There is one element, a division headquarters that’s not needed prior to then that will come in after that. But otherwise, all of those 30,000 will be on the ground by the end of that time. And that is something we’re all pushing. By the way, we’re also, obviously, watching very carefully as the U.S military and DOD are providing resources in the government to Haiti.
And so far, there’s been no impact whatsoever other than the slippage of one airframe that was used to bring in the air traffic control tower, a critical piece of equipment, I think it was an An-124 airframe that did a contract down there and that just caused the 24-hour slippage of one, again, airframe’s worth of kit going to Afghanistan.
Twenty-fourth MEU, the Marine Expeditionary Unit that is announced has diverted down to Haiti was going to go through the European Command in route to Central Command anyway. It was actually not intended to go on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was to be the theater reserve. We also have a Marine Expeditionary Unit with several amphibs in the area.
We have occasionally put that on the ground, but relatively rarely. And indeed, that’s what that force is intended to do and so far, it is still intended to do that. And if necessary, we can extend the existing force that’s out there for whatever period of time is necessary until it arrives. But right now, there’s no plan or necessity to do that.
You’ll note, I am sure, that Petraeus admitted, frankly, that he’s "never been a wild fan of timelines." He got the date wrong: it’s July, not August, 2011 — a small thing, perhaps, but you’d think the general ought to know the deadline that his commander-in-chief has set. And nowhere, in fact, did Obama state that the start of the withdrawal is "conditions-based."
Instead, Petraeus went on and on about how he’s committed to getting the troops into Afghanistan quickly. And not much about getting them out on schedule.