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12.14.09

Joe Biden's Secret Mission

Far from a rebuke of Biden, Obama's Afghan decision was close to the VP's true position, the White House says. Richard Wolffe on Biden's next challenge: selling the war strategy without gaffes.

According to the newspaper accounts, Joe Biden should be an unhappy man. He just lost the internal debate about the new Afghanistan strategy and is now required to sell the policy to anxious Democrats and the skeptical media.

So it came as something of a shock to congressional Democrats to hear the vice president declare his true position in a meeting at the White House late last month, as the Afghan policy meetings were drawing to a close.

“Why can’t we just withdraw the troops?” asked one member, appealing to the war skeptic in the office of the vice president.

“Just so everyone knows,” Biden corrected his questioner, “I’m not for drawing down the troops.”

In fact, Biden—for all his pressure to limit the scale and scope of the new Afghan mission—ended up as an advocate for another 10,000 to 15,000 troops to be deployed to the war zone. Instead of backing a pure counterterrorism strategy, Biden himself was a compromiser with those wanting to beef up the counterinsurgency approach beloved by the generals.

Biden’s main job through the internal debate was to open up the space for his boss to pick a hybrid strategy between withdrawal and escalation: a limited mission with no lofty goals of establishing democracy, and with a clear end-date for the start of the drawdown.

White House officials say the vice president is now playing the role of character witness to his former friends in Congress, telling them that the president is committed to the narrower strategy and the beginning of the withdrawal in July 2011—no matter what the public comments of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

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“There’s a lot of speculation as to how sincere that date is. It’s very sincere,” said one senior White House official. “As commander in chief and secretary of defense, you cannot draw categorical lines in the sand about what are the right troop movements 18 months in advance. But it’s as firm a commitment as you can make in this environment.”

Biden’s role as a vocal questioner of the top brass revolved around a simple concern: that the internal debate needed to focus on strategy more than the raw number of troops. Was it worth committing more money and lives to Afghanistan if the core leadership of al Qaeda was hiding across the border in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed neighbor with a far greater strategic interest to the United States?

For Biden, stabilizing the Afghan government was only a means to an end—to maintain intense pressure on al Qaeda. He had no interest in the old liberal, and now neoconservative, goal of nation-building.

As a supporter of an extra 15,000 troops, compared to Obama’s final decision of twice that number, Biden ended up closer to the final result than his media image as an opponent of any buildup.

“Just so everyone knows,” Biden corrected his questioner, “I’m not for drawing down the troops.”

But he was still some way off, and that leaves the vice president with his trickiest—yet familiar—challenge: to sell the strategy in a way that helps the president and yet remains truthful to his own concerns.

If history is any guide, Biden can stumble badly when speaking for himself rather than sticking to his talking points. Then again, if Obama really wanted someone to stick to his talking points, he could have chosen Evan Bayh as his No. 2.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.