Remember what Vice President Biden told Jonathan Alter in “The Promise”?
At the conclusion of an interview in his West Wing office, Biden was adamant. “In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it,” Biden said as he wheeled to leave the room, late for lunch with the president. He turned at the door and said once more, “Bet. On. It.”
Let’s hope for Alter’s sake he didn’t put any serious money down on Biden’s wager. Because that “Promise” is starting to look pretty shaky.
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The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama’s pledge that he’d begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials have told McClatchy.
Why is this happening, according to McClatchy? Several reasons are cited:
“U.S. officials realized that conditions in Afghanistan were unlikely to allow a speedy withdrawal.”
“During our assessments, we looked at if we continue to move forward at this pace, how long before we can fully transition to the Afghans? And we found that we cannot fully transition to the Afghans by July 2011,” said one senior administration official.
On the face of it, this statement does not make sense. First of all, according to previous, repeated statements of US officials, including President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, the date was not supposed to be conditions-based. The pace of the drawdown was supposed to be conditions based. So, if the McClatchy story is true, this is a big reversal of an Obama promise.
Second, the longstanding publicly stated policy that the Obama administration is, according to McClatchy, about to publicly walk away from, did not include a promise of a “speedy withdrawal.” So, what these US officials are really telling McClatchy is not “we realized that conditions don’t permit a speedy withdrawal,” since these officials were never intending to carry out a “speedy withdrawal,” but that according to them, conditions do not permit any meaningful withdrawal at all that starts in July 2011.
Third, it was never US policy to “fully transition to the Afghans” by July 2011; no human being on planet Earth, that I am aware of, ever stated or believed that that was going to happen. July 2011 was supposed to mark the beginning of the transition. So, this statement is like saying, “During our assessments, we realized that it is sometimes cold in parts of Alaska.” Instead, what these officials are saying is: according to our assessments, we won’t be able to transition to Afghan control by next summer to a sufficient degree to withdraw enough troops to plausibly call it a meaningful withdrawal.
What can we conclude from this?
First, the “surge” was a military failure. This should be openly acknowledged by everyone. Every US general and laptop bombardier pundit should have to write it on the blackboard 100 times: “The surge was a military failure.”
But more importantly, the political policy in which the surge was embedded was a political failure. By coupling his capitulation to the military on the surge with his insistence on a date to begin troop withdrawals, we were told, Obama had politically outfoxed the military. Regardless of whether the surge succeeded or failed militarily, the troops would begin to come home anyway, and the military had signed off on that. If the McClatchy report is true, this was all hot air and rationalization. The surge failed militarily, and the conclusion being drawn is that the troops have to stay.
A second reason is cited:
Pakistanis had concluded wrongly that July 2011 would mark the beginning of the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
That perception, one Pentagon adviser said, has convinced Pakistan’s military – which is key to preventing Taliban sympathizers from infiltrating Afghanistan – to continue to press for a political settlement instead of military action.
This is striking. Indeed, the Obama administration’s announcement that US troops would begin withdrawing next summer has been widely credited with pushing forward efforts to achieve a political settlement. What is striking about this is that the Pentagon is explicitly saying that from the Pentagon’s point of view, a political settlement must be prevented and, therefore, the timetable to begin withdrawal is bad because it was pushing forward prospects for a political settlement.
It’s not shocking that Pentagon officials think this; it’s shocking that they say it openly. It imitates Robert Mankoff ‘s recent New Yorker cartoon in which a general says:
“Well, I’m an optimist – I still think peace can be avoided.”
A third reason is cited:
Last week’s midterm elections also have eased pressure on the Obama administration to begin an early withdrawal. Earlier this year, some Democrats in Congress pressed to cut off funding for Afghanistan operations. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives beginning in January, however, there’ll be less push for a drawdown. The incoming House Armed Services chairman, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., told Reuters last week that he opposed setting the date.
It is beyond dispute that Republican control of the House is a big setback for pressure to withdraw troops. But several things should be noted.
First, Representative McKeon did indeed tell Reuters that he opposed setting the date. But he also told Reuters that he saw the date as a done deal and wouldn’t press to change it:
Reuters: But the actual deadline itself, you’re not going to press for that to be changed?
McKeon: No. I think that’s installed.
So, using Representative McKeon’s statement to Reuters as an excuse to throw away the drawdown date is pretty weak.
Second, while leadership of the House and House committees is obviously a very big deal, the actual composition of the House with respect to opinions on the war in Afghanistan hasn’t changed all that much. As I noted last week, 12 Democratic incumbents defeated last week were supporters of the McGovern Amendment which would have required the president to establish a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan. 39 Democratic incumbents defeated last week voted against the McGovern Amendment. The overwhelming majority of the 153 Democrats in the House who wanted a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan are still in the House or were replaced by Democrats, joined by a new group of Republicans, some of whom – it’s not clear yet how many – may be skeptics on the war.
Third, Democrats still control the Senate, and Armed Services Chair Senator Levin has been a strong supporter of the July 2011 date, which he has said is needed to put pressure on the Afghan government. Sen.-Elect Rand Paul recently stated that the Senate and the House need to debate the Afghanistan war, and that the arguments and authorization of force from ten years ago cannot justify US policy today. He has also said that military spending has to be on the table for cuts, and that the wars have to be part of that discussion.
Finally, there is a wild card. If you were going to draw up a list of five things that President Obama could do that would be likely to draw a primary challenge in 2012, throwing the Afghanistan drawdown in the trash would surely be on that list. From the point of view of the White House political people, that’s a real political threat, even if they see Obama’s renomination as a done deal: they don’t want to see some Eugene McCarthy candidate take a third of the Democratic primary vote in New Hampshire or Iowa.
So, publicly walking away from the July 2011 drawdown is a “very big deal,” and the White House political people should be screaming.
UPDATE: McClatchy has updated its original story, to include the following paragraph:
The White House vehemently denies that there is any change in policy. “The president has been crystal clear that we will begin drawing down troops in July of 2011. There is absolutely no change to that policy,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.
It’s very good that the White House has vigorously responded to this story. It’s very bad that “unnamed Administration officials” are allowed to publicly attack the president’s “crystal clear” policy. If these “senior Administration officials” misrepresented the president, why can’t the White House put a stop to “senior Administration officials” publicly attacking the resident’s “crystal clear” policy?
Here’s Senator-Elect Paul saying on Sunday that the Senate and the House must debate the war in Afghanistan and that the debate and resolution of force from ten years ago are not enough to justify current policy: