My former boss, Les Gelb, is onto something when he points out in the Daily Beast that the deadline for U.S. troops exiting Afghanistan isn’t the summer of 2011 but more likely the end of 2014. The former date was tossed out by President Obama as the beginning of a transition to Afghan forces, but all indications are that few U.S. troops will be withdrawn at that time. The latter date will emerge from the Lisbon NATO summit in mid-November as the deadline for NATO forces to transition out of Afghanistan.
Where I differ with Les is in the outrage he expresses over the extension of the war effort. Since he thinks the war effort as currently conceived is foolish and unable to achieve its objectives, it stands to reason that he would bemoan four more years of commitment. For my part, I think that the strategy Gen. Petraeus is now implementing gives us our best chance of assuring a decent outcome — but it’s not an outcome that we can bring about in the next year. Even the most successful counterinsurgency strategies take longer than that. The NATO deadline gives some assurance that our troops, and those of our allies, will have the time needed to roll back the Taliban and stand up Afghan security forces capable of protecting their own country in the future. That is not, I stress, an assurance of success; a lot can still go wrong. But it does at least give our troops a fighting chance to succeed, which they wouldn’t have if we were really pulling out next summer. Which we’re not. The challenge now will be communicating to the region that we are not — as our enemies hope and our friends fear — about to head out the exit.