The military has put together a game plan, set up their strategy and deployed their troops into the field. They are ready to storm with full-spectrum pressure to achieve their objective.
I’m not talking about winning the war in Afghanistan, whatever that means these days. I’m talking about winning the war on the end of the war in Afghanistan.
American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.
With the administration unable yet to point to much tangible evidence of progress, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who assumed command in Afghanistan last month from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is taking several steps to emphasize hopeful signs on the ground that, he will argue, would make a rapid withdrawal unwise. Meanwhile, a rising generation of young officers, who have become expert over the past nine years in the art of counterinsurgency, have begun quietly telling administration officials that they need time to get their work done.
“Their argument,” said one senior administration official, who would not speak for attribution about the internal policy discussions, “is that while we’ve been in Afghanistan for 9 years, only in the past 12 months or so have we started doing this right, and we need to give it some time and think about what our long-term presence in Afghanistan should look like.”
No military commander in the history of armed conflict has asked for less battlefield resources. The drive from the military for a longer, stronger, deeper commitment should be baked into the cake of the Administration’s thinking on the July 2011 transition point.
But, the offensive appears to already be working. Both Joe Biden and Robert Gates have sought to minimize the importance of July 2011, saying that any withdrawals would be limited, perhaps as few as a few thousand troops. You can be sure General David Petraeus will join them in that assessment this Sunday, when he appears on Meet the Press.
Remember, this would be a total reversal of Petraeus’ own word. In Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise, he describes a meeting between Obama, Petraeus and former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal:
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.”
The July 2011 transition date was the necessary concession by the military commanders in exchange for getting a larger commitment of forces in December of last year. It wasn’t something to be thrown over because “we need to give the counter-insurgency some time.” In December 2009, David Petraeus said affirmatively that the military would be able to hand over operations to the Afghan National Army, and if they couldn’t, they should leave. That was the agreement. That was the deal.
Petraeus is already breaking it. And it’s because the war hasn’t gone well. Petraeus hopes to scrounge up whatever progress he can find to justify staying longer.
So far the White House is staying neutral in this debate, with a formal assessment to come in December. Their top officials have vacillated between affirming a continued commitment to the region and stressing that such a commitment would not be open-ended.
By the way, we have a new Friedman Unit:
At the core of the timetables, they say, is what White House officials call the “two-year rule.” During the review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, Mr. Gates made the argument, according to one participant in the White House Situation Room discussions, that “in any particular location you should be able to clear, build, hold and transfer” to the Afghan forces within two years. Military officials said two years was roughly how it took to make headway in difficult places, once troops were in place.
“If it takes longer than that,” the official said, “there’s a problem, and you have the temptation to drift.”
Those two years are rapidly approaching. The counterinsurgency policy has actually been in place since March 2009, with more resources, from an initial escalation of 21,000, than during the Bush Administration. The White House starts the two-year clock in June 2009. But either way, nobody, not even Petraeus, can say that the time frame has been rushed.