Yesterday, National Journal blasted around a report from their Marc Ambinder announcing that “Petraeus would endorse 30,000 troops home by end of 2012.” It’s rare to see such a transparent effort to box in a commander with a leak so obviously sourced not to military but to political sources. Sure enough, later that day news agencies reported that the president would be announcing a decision on how many surge troops to drawdown on Wednesday. And yes, he would be announcing just what Petraeus supposedly “would endorse.”
Needless to say, Petraeus WILL endorse whatever his boss says. But is that what the Pentagon recommended to the president? Not according to what we have been hearing, and not according to this piece in today’s LA Times. Indeed, it is abundantly clear that the decision on how and when to bring troops home is completely political, bearing no relationship whatsoever to the military plan to prevail in Afghanistan. Rather, let’s call this Obama’s political plan to succeed in 2012.
When the president first announced the surge into Afghanistan in 2009, he also announced the arbitrary July 2011 deadline to bring some home. But criticism of that nakedly political deadline (what did July have to do with anything? It was nowhere to be found in any military plan presented to Obama) was muted in favor of the justly deserved praise to order the surge in the first place. It wasn’t an easy decision, harder still for a president so tied to the left wing of his party.
Now, however, Obama is faced with a declining economy and an angry base. When they voted for the anti-Bush, they didn’t expect us to still be in Iraq, surged into Afghanistan, and aiding a NATO fight in Libya. On the right, where Obama has derived solid support for a strong national security policy, there is a growing disenchantment with war (and with American global leadership—about which read here, here, here and here). Worried in 2009 about 2012 reelection prospects, he and his political advisers are now more worried.
And what of the military realities? There are some in the White House and Pentagon who have been advocating a counter-terrorism only strategy in Afghanistan. These CT advocates have never made the case for stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring it will not become a safe haven for al Qaeda et al. But that’s not their aim. Theirs is a philosophical hostility to counterinsurgency despite its obvious successes in Iraq and yes, in Afghanistan. They aren’t the commanders in the field, who did not recommend this drawdown. Like Vice President Biden, senior Afghanistan adviser General Douglas Lute, and the president’s political inner circle, who are apparently among the prime agitators for a more rapid withdrawal, they simply wish us to be out regardless of the strategy laid out by Petraeus.
So what do these numbers mean? They don’t mean failure for sure. But they do mean that gains made in the south of Afghanistan will be harder to maintain and that needed operations in the east will go forward more slowly. If we are able to prevail, it will be with more deaths and more casualties. It will also mean a harder slog recruiting Afghans to our side (because they will question our commitment all the more), an almost certain race for the exits among our allies (see Gary Schmitt’s fine piece on same here) and a crisis of confidence in the United States in Islamabad and Kabul. For those who believe Afghan troops will quickly and easily fill the gap, see Fred and and Kim Kagan’s take from this morning on that question.
Is the president’s decision a disaster? No. Is it a disgrace? In that it is so totally delinked from the commanders, somewhat. But the character of the president’s decision making, his cynical manipulation of the roll out, and his willingness to put his own political prospects above all represent a new low.