In 2009, President Obama dispatched 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan from a point of relative weakness: the commander in chief was out-generaled, in many ways, boxed in publicly by leaks from the Pentagon about concerns over whether Obama had the fortitude to finish the job. He had trouble explaining to Americans the concentration on Afghanistan, a country with virtually no real al-Qaida presence for years.
In 2011, Obama begins to withdraw those troops from a position of relative strength, having made the ultimate general’s decision in giving the go-ahead for the risky mission that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, and by presiding over a process that was not public, did not leak, and whose narrative was controlled by the National Security Council, not by the Pentagon.
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“There was a little bit of a modern Seven Days in May dynamic,” a senior Defense official said of that previous Afghanistan troop review, referring to the 1964 film about rogue generals who try to overthrow the civilian U.S. government through indirect pressure. “Now the White House has kind of reversed it.”
It is clear, because his people are saying it privately today, that Gen. David Petraeus would have preferred a slower drawdown. As he prepares for his confirmation hearing to become the next CIA director, however, it is not at all clear how reluctant his endorsement of the president’s withdrawal plan actually is. Petraeus is keenly aware of two political currents. One: In keeping with American public opinion and their view that Afghanistan had become a “wrong” war, virtually all of Obama’s closest advisers wanted a rapid withdrawal.
Two: Having been the victim of a campaign by some in the Pentagon (both military and civilian officials) to constrain his freedom to choose where to go in Afghanistan the second time he reviewed the policy (there was a very early, cursory administration review that led to the appointment of Gen. Stanley McChrsytal as commander of U.S. forces there), Obama and the National Security Council would be much wiser about the process this time, understanding now that the process drove the decision as much as the input did.
The president has the political flexibility to demonstrate to the American people that when it comes to the fatigue of 10 years worth of war, he feels it. And he wants to end it. And if that means he has to push his military harder than they want to be pushed, he will. It is, of course, the successes of the special forces and the intelligence community that provide Obama with this window, along with a public that is no longer clamoring for victory. A skittish Congress, worried about the debt, plays right into his hand, too.
While the relationship between Obama and Petraeus is solid, there is friction between their staffs. Petraeus’s planning colonels and captains have little regard for Obama’s lieutenants on the NSC, and it is within their interests to portray Petraeus’s disappointment as greater than it may be.
Earlier this year, as the administration began to gather inputs for this review, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert Gates both sent word informally that any leaks would be interpreted by the president as insubordination and as an attempt to irregularly influence public opinion, and that they would be called out (the leaks themselves, not the leakers, assuming they weren’t findable) and would harden the president’s own convictions. Obama’s implicit promise, in turn, was that he would be guided by the intelligence and the inputs if they were honest, and that he would keep the current strategy in place.
Making this decision from a position of strength also allows Obama to tell Americans more of the truth about the war and its aims.
In 2009, to convince the American people that the war in Afghanistan needed more troops, Obama could not tell the whole truth, the full truth, and nothing but: Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the root of all the troubles; the generator of new momentum for al-Qaida, a safe haven for al-Qaida, and, indeed, the main battlefront. Afghanistan was not Obama’s “right war.” It was one he inherited; one where not only was there no hope of a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan but one that was actively destabilizing its neighboring country, a country with whom NATO is fighting a covert war under the guise of uneasy cooperation.
There simply was not a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan have a future that’s interrelated, and Pakistan needed assurance that the government in Kabul could stand on its own two feet, one that would not rely on, say, India as a crutch.
Today, Obama needed to justify withdrawing troops so he can tell more of the truth: indeed, a senior administration official, in a conference call today, said this: “The al-Qaida threat does come from Pakistan. That is where they were hunkered down.” And: “There is no transnational threat—no terrorist threat—from Afghanistan.”
The official even acknowledged what heretofore had been unmentionable: that the United States was prosecuting an aggressive campaign inside Pakistan, sometimes without their knowledge, using assets both “human and technical,” a reference to the CIA’s successful drone attacks and to U.S. special forces raids along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Petraeus is a great general. Here, he may have out-generaled himself.
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