The Key Date to Watch For

During the confirmation hearing for Gen. Petraeus, the thing to listen for was a date. Michael O’Hanlon on why President Obama agrees with Senator McCain on Afghanistan.

06.29.10 5:20 PM ET

Central to today’s confirmation hearings of Gen. David Petraeus was a single date: July, 2011. But the question of that date, introduced by President Obama last year during a West Point speech, should be examined a little closer.

Is that date really the beginning of the end, a decisive turning point in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, similar to what we’re supposed to see this August in Iraq? Or is it simply the start of an incremental, conditions-based process of reducing U.S. and allied forces?

Indeed, the president’s thinking is, all irony aside, probably consistent with Senator McCain’s admonition in today’s hearing that conditions on the ground, rather than a specific schedule, should determine our drawdown

Put differently, is July 2011 a withdrawal or just downsizing? Does it reflect the limit of the president’s patience with the International Security Assistance Force effort, or just a date by which he expects the peak U.S. force level to start being reduced, but the mission otherwise to continue largely as before?

More Daily Beast contributors on the Petreaus hearings.My judgment is that a rapid U.S. departure starting next summer is not likely. The civil-military campaign plan formed last summer by General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry will take at least three years to be implemented, starting from the release of the document in August 2009. President Obama may not have formally committed himself to that campaign plan, and has explicitly reserved the right to change his own mind about the war, if progress does not occur soon.

But there are major structural reasons why he will likely maintain his resolve. Since his presidential campaign began, he has declared the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater his top national security priority. He has gained full ownership of this war by now, meaning that to accelerate the U.S. departure would risk being seen as conceding defeat in a war operation that he chose and led. While an anxious Congress may prod him politically in one direction, the fear of being branded as weak on national security will likely pull at least as firmly in the other direction.

This summer, many have been reading Jonathan Alter’s recent book about Obama decision-making. According to Alter, the president extracted pledges from U.S. military leadership that 18 months would suffice to turn over primary responsibility for security to Afghan forces.

But transfer of primary command responsibility is not the most telling harbinger of a U.S. exit. For two militaries intent on working together, formal operational control can be a malleable concept, especially in this kind of war.

More significant is that in the summer of 2011, the Afghan security forces will still be well short of their necessary size and competence. In some sense, in some places, they may be able to take overall formal command, but only if ISAF remains heavily involved in operations and fully partnered at all levels. The implication that the ISAF mission could effectively be completed by July 2011 is not consistent with conditions on the ground, the integrated U.S. civil-military campaign plan, or public utterances on the subject by administration officials.

To be sure, President Obama has been somewhat ambiguous on the matter. He started all the chatter with his West Point speech, as noted. And he has wanted to convey a sense of urgency—as well as uncertainty—in the hope that doing so would not only mollify opposition in the Congress but pressure Afghan reformers to get to work. Yet just last week he reiterated that we won’t be in a hurry to “shut off the lights” come next summer. Administration official comments on the subject, including General Petraeus’ today, have tended to be similarly supportive of a patient approach.

I believe the best way to understand July 2011 is that the president is protecting his prerogatives to conclude next summer that the war has failed and that a fast U.S. drawdown is the only reasonable way to cut our losses. But that is clearly not the option he prefers and clearly not a plan he has already decided upon. And Biden’s other notable comment to Alter—that come next July you’ll see lots of Americans leaving Afghanistan—is a personal prediction of the VP rather than official policy.

Indeed, the president’s thinking is, all irony aside, probably consistent with Senator McCain’s admonition in today’s hearing that conditions on the ground, rather than a specific schedule, should determine our drawdown. If things are going better by next summer, Obama will want to build on success, and that means a gradual and conditions-based U.S. drawdown that could still see at least half as many American GIs in Afghanistan come election day 2012 (according to my rough calculations).

However, if things are not going better—if conditions on the ground suggest the war is being lost and likely to keep being lost—Obama reserves the right to cut our national losses, and revert to an as-yet-unspecified Plan B.

This approach may not have been my first choice, but it has its logic. The president should emphasize even more often that he does not intend a rapid departure, but he need not eliminate all ambiguity to have an effective policy.

Michael O'Hanlon is senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at Brookings and coauthor with Hassina Sherjan of the new book, Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.