General David Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, is making the media rounds to build the case for the war and, seemingly, to undermine his Commander-in-Chief’s July 2011 timeline to begin withdrawal of forces.
On NBC’s "Meet The Press" yesterday, he told host David Gregory:
We’re making progress, and progress is winning, if you will, but it takes the accumulation of a lot of progress ultimately, needless to say, to win overall, and that’s going to be a long-term proposition, without question.
Vice President Biden has also commented on it. He said recently, I think, it could be as little as a couple of thousand troopers who go home next July. Again, that remains to be seen, and it would be premature to have any kind of assessment at this juncture about what we may or may not be able to transition. What the president very much wants from me, and, and what we talked about in the Oval Office is the responsibility of a military commander on the ground to provide as best professional military advice, leave the politics to him. Certainly I’m aware of the context within which I offer that advice, but that just informs the advice, it doesn’t drive it. The situation on the ground drives it. That’s what he wants, that’s what he, he told me to provide, and that’s what I will provide. That’s what I owe the country and our troopers who are fighting hard on the ground.
Let me point out one other item about July 2011 if I could. Because what I have often noted was that in the speech that the president made at West Point, there were two messages. One was a message of substantial additional commitment, additional 30,000 troops, again more civilians, more funding for Afghan forces, authorization of 100,000 more of them and so forth; but also a message of increased urgency. And that’s what July 2011 really connotes. It is to all the participants, those in Kabul, some of us in uniform, again our civilian counterparts, that we’ve got to get on with this, that this has been going on for some nine years or so, that there is understandable concern, in some cases frustration, and that, therefore, we’ve got to really put our shoulder to the wheel and show during the course of this year that progress can be achieved. And, and, again, one manifestation of that is out there that you have this date. But, again, we’ve had good dialogue on this, and I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based.
Petraeus’ media tour included the New York Times:
In an hourlong interview with The New York Times, the general argued against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011, the date set by President Obama to begin at least a gradual reduction of the 100,000 troops on the ground. General Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned and given the resources that it required. “For the first time,” he said, “we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year and a half.”
“The president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit,” General Petraeus said at his office at NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul. “My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives.”
In the interview with The Times, General Petraeus also suggested that he would resist any large-scale or rapid withdrawal of American forces. If the Taliban believes that will happen, he said, they are mistaken.
“Clearly the enemy is fighting back, sees this as a very pivotal moment, believes that all he has to do is outlast us through this fighting season,” the general said. “That is just not the case.”
The public campaign begun Sunday echoes the similarly high-profile efforts the general undertook at the bloodiest phase of the war in Iraq. In early 2007, joining a group of defense intellectuals and retired generals, General Petraeus asserted that the anarchic situation in Iraq could be stabilized with an infusion of tens of thousands additional American troops.
And the Washington Post‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
I think we’re seeing the early stages of a population centric, comprehensive, civil-military, counterinsurgency effort. We are seeing the early results of the implementation of that kind approach. The enemy has shown himself to be resilient. The enemy does fight back. He is trying, in his assessment, to outlast us. And our task obviously is to produce the kind of progress that can show the contributing nations — we’re up to 47 — that can show the 47 ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] nations that the investment they’ve made is producing a dividend, to show the Afghan people that their forces and their ISAF partners are improving security for them over them, even though the Taliban are fighting back.
Two possibilities obtain here. First, President Obama has been persuaded that his July 2011 deadline sends the wrong strategic message and is using Petraeus as a stalking horse to change the policy, presumably to leverage the general’s reputation. Second, Petraeus is undermining his commander-in-chief, daring the president to relieve a third straight ISAF commander — this one arguably the most prestigious American military figure since World War II.
I happen to think Petraeus wrong about the winnability of the war in Afghanistan but right about the deadline. But these are calls for the elected civilian leadership, not the uniformed military.
But the evidence seems to point to a coordinated administration effort rather than an insubordinate general. AAP’s Andrew Gully notes the inconsistencies between Petraeus’ pronouncements over the weekend and what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been saying in recent weeks. But those differences are nuanced, indeed.
As reported in today’s Los Angeles Times, Gates is engaged in precisely the same round of cheerleading for the war efforts as the ISAF chief.
"With more Afghan forces, we can be on a path to transition in more places around the country," Gates said. "The success with the [Afghan] army in particular, I think, bodes well for in fact beginning to have some transitions maybe as early as this spring, but certainly beginning in the summer."
Gates was referring to the recent announcement by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization training command in Afghanistan that it had reached its 2010 goal of 134,000 trained Afghan troops two months early.
His comments are part of an effort by senior civilian and military officials to counter growing doubts in the U.S. and Europe about the war. In separate interviews, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Afghanistan, also pointed to what he called "small pockets of progress" in several areas.
Gates and Petraeus played down the possibility of rapid cuts in U.S. troop levels starting in July 2011, the point at which President Obama said the 30,000-troop increase he ordered late last year would start to reverse. "There is no question in anybody’s mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of 2011," Gates said in the interview Thursday. But so far, he said, "there hasn’t even been a discussion of a steep decline quickly" at the top levels of the administration.
His comments were a pointed rebuttal to lower-level officials in Washington who have privately asserted that Obama will rapidly withdraw troops beginning next summer. Gates disputed that notion, emphasizing a consensus among himself, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama. "As the president has said, and Hillary has said and I’ve said, the pace and the number are going to depend on the conditions on the ground," Gates said.
I’ve long been skeptical of the administration’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan, seeing the "Surge" as a least bad political choice rather than something enthusiastically supported at the top. But the bottom line is that, whatever their motivation, the Obama team has doubled down on the mission.
As Huffington Post‘s Robert Naiman points out, the United States has now lost 575 soldiers in Afghanistan on Obama’s watch, exactly as many as during the entire Bush presidency. Like it or not, this is now Obama’s war. And, unless his Defense Secretary and commanding general are conspiring to undermine him — and the prospects of that are vanishingly small — he’s apparently intent on fighting it well beyond next July.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.