Coinciding with and probably as a result of the McChrystal firing, a lot of questioning has been directed toward the Obama administration about its previously announced decision to begin the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in July of 2011. That was originally announced by the President when he outlined his new strategy about a year ago. Since then, as administration officials have been questioned about the date, mixed messages have been the result. VP Joe Biden has said the date is “firm”. SecDef Robert Gates has said it would be based on “conditions on the ground.”
Critics have rightfully said that announcing a firm withdrawal date is a strategically self-defeating move. It gives the enemy a finish line they simply have to survive long enough to make. In addition, it isn’t great for the morale of those US soldiers fighting there now.
So it was interesting to hear the president – who originally set the withdrawal date for next year – deny that was what he had done:
“We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” Obama said. “We said we’d begin a transition phase that would allow the Afghan government to take more and more responsibility.”
Well, of course, that’s not at all how it was interpreted then (light switching and door closing were at least heavily implied). Nor were those interpretations of the date then ever denied by the president or his staff – until now.
The announcement above is actually a change. White House spinmeisters will most likely characterize it as a “clarification”. But the bottom line is, the “firm” July 2011 withdrawal date announced by the president last year is much less “firm” today with this “clarification”.
The Afghan government is far from being ready to “transition” into taking “more and more responsibility.”
That, in fact, is why critics in the Senate are telling the president that the problem lies not with the military side of the house, but with the civilian/State Department (and other Departments) side of the house.
Until a credible and competent diplomatic staff is assembled in Kabul which is willing to work with the present government and is able to begin to do there what was done in Iraq, there will be nothing to which to hand this “transition” off.
Yes, there’s corruption. Yes, we don’t like it. But Afghanistan isn’t the US and corruption and the like have been an integral part of the region’s lifestyle for centuries. Is the goal to make them a mini-US, or to have them develop a functioning government and security apparatus that can hold the country and keep terrorists from basing there and threatening the US?
Two things to take from this – this is a mild presidential rebuke to the “this is a firm date” crowd (*cough* Biden *cough*). That may have further implications down the road. And it appears the president may be listening to the generals for a change – a good sign if true. Of course, he hasn’t much choice right now, does he?
It is also a case where strategic ambiguity – at least in this specific area – is a help and not a hindrance.