U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES
, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen defended President Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday. One of the key points of Gates' testimony was that the July 2011 deadline for U.S. forces to begin their withdrawal was not actually hard and fast. Gates' comments did not actually conflict with anything Obama said Tuesday night, but he did provide more granularity and caveats than the president offered. The issue that Gates attempted to square Wednesday and that Obama talked around Tuesday night is emblematic of one of the important dynamics of an end game and an exit strategy
. This dynamic has essentially two polar aspects. On one end of the spectrum is the need to have a clear deadline. Support for the war in Afghanistan is on the decline in the United States and is already abysmal in Europe. Emphasizing a deadline has considerable value for a host of reasons. First of all, a deadline makes it easier for allies in Europe to make a final commitment of additional forces before reaching the point where they can draw down completely. (Obama's strategy hopes NATO will send 5,000 additional troops; some of America's closest allies have committed just around 1,000 so far.) Secondly, a deadline offers the American people a light at the end of the tunnel to rally and sustain support for a final push. A deadline also imposes a sense of urgency that Afghanistan has sorely lacked for almost the entirety of the eight-year campaign there. It makes it clear to U.S., NATO and allied troops that their deployment is the last, best chance to demonstrate results, and it is a sign to the Afghan government and security forces that foreign support is finite. Finally, a deadline makes it exceedingly clear to American adversaries around the world
that the era of U.S. military bandwidth being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan is coming to a close. The White House has given the Pentagon considerable latitude regarding the number of troops it sustains in Afghanistan.
But deadlines also have the opposite effect of emboldening the Taliban and making it clear that if they can hold the line for the next few years, they may well (re)inherit the country. At the same time, the Taliban becomes the enduring reality for locals, while the foreign presence becomes the finite reality that Afghans, based on long historical experience, have always found them to be. As such, the ultimate goal is for U.S., NATO and allied forces to fundamentally change the reality on the ground in Afghanistan in an extremely short period of time. This is a problematic goal to put it gently, and profound challenges loom.
The missions of knocking back Taliban capability, establishing security in key population centers and setting indigenous Afghan security forces up for success are extremely ambitious. Obama made it explicitly clear that the ultimate objective is the transfer of security to the Afghans on a province-by-province basis based not on a timeline but on benchmarks. In other words, cemented deadlines would be contrary to Obama's articulated strategy. And this is where the language of Obama's speech and Gates' caveats come into play. Despite making it next to impossible for listeners to come away from the speech without the July 2011 deadline at the forefront of their mind, the White House and the Pentagon have — by design and intention — considerable room to play with. Consider the Iraq surge. In 2007, when then-President George Bush announced the surge, he proposed "more than 20,000" troops. This number was somewhat misleading
for a number of reasons, most importantly that it did not include the requisite support troops. The 2007 surge ultimately involved more than 30,000 U.S. servicemen and women. Few in early 2007 would have imagined that well over 100,000 U.S. troops would still be in Iraq at the beginning of 2010. In addition, July 2011 is when Obama has promised "to begin the transfer of [U.S.] forces out of Afghanistan." The pace and scale of that drawdown is completely undefined. Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and roughly 40,000 NATO and allied troops will be in Afghanistan when this drawdown begins, and there may well be more troops in Afghanistan well into 2012 than there are today. There are also fixed logistical constraints that put a ceiling on how quickly troops can be withdrawn. In any event, a reevaluation of the status of the mission in Afghanistan in December 2010 could well be used to justify considerable adjustments to the timeline. No doubt Obama intends to have a drawdown well underway by the time the 2012 presidential election campaigns are in full swing. But his speech certainly places higher priority on demonstrative progress in security and the transition from U.S. to Afghan responsibility. Neither is assured, but the one thing that is clear is that the White House has given the Pentagon considerable latitude regarding the number of troops it sustains in Afghanistan — not only beyond July 2011, but for the remainder of President Obama's first term.