The New York Times dryly notes: “The Obama administration sent a forceful public message Sunday that American military forces could remain in Afghanistan for a long time, seeking to blunt criticism that President Obama had sent the wrong signal in his war-strategy speech last week by projecting July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal.” Nowhere was this more evident that on Meet the Press, where Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, every way they could, sought to downplay and erase the 18-month deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that the president described in his West Point speech.
They had to, of course. The contradiction between the need for a full commitment to a critical war and an artificial date for withdrawal is too vast and unsustainable, both logically and politically. It is a tribute to conservatives who have argued strenuously against the imposition of such a deadline — and those lawmakers who have grilled the administration on the point — that the administration is essentially saying, “Never mind.” Gates explained:
It’s the beginning of a process. In July 2011, our generals are confident that they will know whether our strategy is working, and the plan is to begin transferring areas of responsibility for security over to the Afghan security forces with us remaining in a tactical and then strategic overwatch position, sort of the cavalry over the hill. But we will begin to thin our forces and begin to bring them home. But the pace of that, of bringing them home, and where we will bring them home from will depend on the circumstances on the ground, and those judgments will be made by our commanders in the field. … It will begin in July of 2011. But how, how quickly it goes will very much depend on the conditions on the ground. We will have a significant number of forces in there … or some considerable period of time after that.
Clinton concurred that “we’re not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline. What we’re talking about is an assessment that in January 2011 we can begin a transition, a transition to hand off responsibility to the Afghan forces.”
And what of the president’s nagging worry, apparently the origin of the artificial deadline that we would be there “forever” without such a date? Sen. McCain, also appearing on Meet the Press, debunked that shopworn argument:
Well, the rationale for war is to break the enemy’s will. That’s the whole rationale for war. Do you break the enemy’s will by saying, “We’re going to be there,” or send a message we’re going to be there for a year and a half or so and then we’re going to begin to leave, no matter what the circumstances are? Or do you tell them, “We’re going to win and we’re going to break your will, and then we’re going to leave”? That’s, that’s, that’s a huge factor in the conduct of war.
This suggests that the elaborate decision-making process and the highly anticipated speech were flawed and ill-conceived, now requiring a rather embarrassing and hasty effort to explain, refine, retract, and ultimately walk back the president’s own words. If McCain is right and success in a counterinsurgency depends on unnerving the enemy, reference to a withdrawal date was a significant misstep. On the other hand, it’s rather plain that no one in the administration is willing to defend a date-certain deadline.
Conservatives have won the point on the essential unworkability of troop deadlines, and the administration’s effort to mollify the Left has been unmasked as silly and unhelpful rhetoric. Overall, this has proved a significant accomplishment of the loyal opposition, one that hopefully will improve its chances for success and steer the president away from similar errors in the future.