The debate effectively boiled down to a matter of months. Petraeus agreed that 10,000 troops could be safely withdrawn this year, but he wanted to keep some of the remaining 23,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2012 and to have the flexibility to extend some of their tours into early 2013 if conditions deteriorated, according to officials with knowledge of the deliberations. Obama’s civilian advisers, pointing to intelligence assessments showing that the U.S. had killed 20 of al-Qaida’s top 30 leaders in the region, wanted the final 23,000 surge troops to leave Afghanistan next spring, with the last of the forces returning home roughly around March.
For nearly two weeks, neither side budged. Petraeus made it clear he opposed beginning the drawdown during the summer, traditionally the time of Afghanistan’s most intense fighting, according to an official familiar with his thinking. The general wanted his successor, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, to be able to move troops from southern Afghanistan, where coalition forces have pushed the Taliban out of many of their former strongholds, to eastern Afghanistan, where conditions have been deteriorating for months. Such a move would take time, and Petraeus argued that the surge troops should be kept in Afghanistan through the end of the year to ensure they had enough time to mount a full counterinsurgency campaign in eastern Afghanistan.
Obama’s civilian aides pushed back hard, arguing that all of the troops could safely leave Afghanistan by next spring because of the successes of the stepped-up counterterror push inside both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gates, who felt the spring 2012 timetable was far too aggressive, proposed keeping the remaining surge troops in Afghanistan through next summer as a compromise. Obama ultimately chose—as he did during the surge debate—to side with the veteran Defense chief.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former top commander in Afghanistan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said in a written statement that Obama’s way forward gives “commanders impressive flexibility this year by linking the withdrawal of the first 10,000 troops of the surge to the year's end. But he inexplicably removed all such flexibility next year by requiring the remaining 23,000 surge troops to be withdrawn by the summer of 2012—necessitating their removal from combat at the height of the fighting season.”
Barno added that the troop withdrawals "can be overcome by the commanders on the ground, yet opens questions about the nature of the calculus.”
Petraeus, for his part, will almost certainly be asked about his views of the withdrawal plan when he testifies Thursday before the Senate panel considering his nomination to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The commander is known for his diplomatic skills, and it’s not clear if he will be willing to publicly discuss any of his recent disagreements with the White House. Petraeus, who will retire from the military to assume his new post at the CIA, will need to decide whether to once again play the part of the good soldier.