Joe Biden has long been seen as the administration’s leading advocate of a “small footprint” approach to Afghanistan. But on ABC’s This Week program on Sunday, he was at pains to downplay the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. There will be a “transition,” he said, but not necessarily a massive withdrawal of forces — “It could be as few as a couple thousand troops.”
That puts Biden effectively on the same page as Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, and other senior administration and military figures who have been stressing that we aren’t headed for the exists come next summer. That’s an important and welcome clarification of the ambiguous policy laid out by President Obama at West Point last fall. But I doubt that the message has reached the region where the perception of American fickleness continues to encourage our foes and discourage our friends.
In Kabul recently, I had dinner with several Afghan politicians and bureaucrats. They were, to a man, horrified by the July 2011 deadline, which feeds into recurring Afghan fears of abandonment by the West — something that happened as recently as the 1990s. They were not mollified when I and other visiting scholars tried to explain that the appointment of General Petraeus suggested that Obama was in the war to win. They actually claimed that Petraeus had been sent to offer a “face-saving way” for the U.S. to withdraw — as he supposedly had done in Iraq. I and the other visitors spent hours trying to mollify these worried Afghans, but without success. As one of them acknowledged, “We’ve developed July 2011 psychosis.”
I am not sure anything can shake their concerns about a premature American departure but at the very least it would be helpful for Obama himself to clarify where he stands. There is a widespread perception in Washington that he has done a sotto voce walk-back from the exit deadline but he needs to be more explicit to convey the message across 7,000 miles of geography and an even wider gap of understanding and perception.
Paradoxically, the more that Obama makes it clear that we will stay in Afghanistan long enough to win, the more he hastens our departure by increasing the pressure on the Taliban. And the more he equivocates, the harder he makes it for NATO forces to make the kind of progress needed to begin a responsible, conditions-based drawdown.