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Biden’s Talk of Withdrawal in Afghanistan Makes Troops’ Task Harder

In this week’s Weekly Standard, I have an editorial praising President Obama for the toughness and resolution he has shown in Afghanistan by refusing to waver from the surge. The latest sign of his willingness to hang tough was the AfPak review released last week, which suggested that the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy is on track. But then on Sunday, Joe Biden — a never-ending source of ill-advised comments — muddied the waters with his appearance on Meet the Press.

When asked about Afghanistan, the vice president said that July 2011 — which increasingly looks irrelevant — will result in a real drawdown of U.S. troops: “It will not be a token amount.” He then went on to say something even more damaging: “We’re going to be totally out of there come hell or high water by 2014.” Huh? Biden claimed that this is what was agreed on at the NATO summit in Lisbon last month. But he is wrong. This is what the Lisbon summit declaration actually said:

The process of transition to full Afghan security responsibility and leadership in some provinces and districts is on track to begin in early 2011, following a joint Afghan and NATO/ISAF assessment and decision. Transition will be conditions-based, not calendar-driven, and will not equate to withdrawal of ISAF-troops. Looking to the end of 2014, Afghan forces will be assuming full responsibility for security across the whole of Afghanistan. [italics added]

In other words, 2014 is not a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces; it is strictly a deadline for transitioning “full responsibility for security” to Afghan forces. Even if Afghan forces take “full responsibility,” however, there is little doubt that they will need plenty of outside support. A similar transition has already occurred in Iraq, and we still have 50,000 troops there.

The question that administration spokesmen must now answer, unfortunately, is whether Biden’s statement accurately represents the president’s views — or whether the NATO summit declaration that Obama signed is a more faithful guide to American policy. I bet it is the latter, but it is beyond frustrating that Biden has made another comment that casts doubt on American resolve just when our staying power was finally being established in the minds of the Afghan people — and in the minds of the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan.

Doesn’t Biden realize that the best way to ensure an expeditious, “conditions-based” drawdown of U.S. forces is by not talking about any withdrawals? The more we signal our determination, the more we talk about our willingness to stay forever if that is what it takes to crush the Taliban, the more Afghans will trust us and abandon the Taliban. And then our troops will be able to come home sooner. Whereas if Biden insists on talking about withdrawals, he makes our troops’ job harder and more likely they will have to fight longer and harder than necessary.