Monday, November 15, 2010

Chasing the rabbits of politics and war

Washington Post:

The Obama administration and its NATO allies will declare late this week that the war in Afghanistan has made sufficient progress to begin turning security control over to its government by spring, months before the administration’s July deadline to start withdrawing U.S. troops, according to U.S. and European officials.

Even as it announces the “transition” process, which will not immediately include troop withdrawals, NATO will also state its intention to keep combat troops in Afghanistan until 2014, a date originally set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The seemingly contradictory messages, in communiques and agreements to be released at NATO’s upcoming summit in Lisbon, are intended to reassure U.S. and European audiences that the process of ending the war has begun.

At the same time, the coalition wants to signal to the Taliban – along with Afghans and regional partners who fear a coalition withdrawal, and Republicans in Congress who oppose it – that they are not leaving anytime soon.

“We have to assemble a coherent narrative . . . that everyone buys into,” said a senior administration official, one of several who discussed ongoing alliance negotiations on the condition of anonymity.

Obama is in a tough spot here. He's under an enormous amount of pressure from the Left to get out of Afghanistan -- hence his promise to begin pulling out on a set day this July. But setting a hard withdrawal date is unwise in the extreme in terms of actually winning the war. Knowing that date, all the bad guys need to do is hunker down for a few months and reemerge when the coast is clear. In the meantime, Afghans who would otherwise fight on our side are unwilling to do so, because they would likely be killed when the bad guys take over again after the U.S. leaves.

It's a real mess, and Obama made it so by allowing politics to compete with sound policy. This is somewhat understandable, since he probably wouldn't have gotten elected if he had staked out a clear and principled position, but it's a mess nonetheless. How do you fight a war with an expiration date?

I fear it's going to get a whole lot messier as the July drawdown date approaches and the 2012 election looms large on the horizon. Obama can only chase two rabbits for so long. He's either going to have to retreat before the "good war" is won or break yet another key promise to the only constituency that remains somewhat loyal to him. He could easily come up rabbitless, especially if the economy doesn't break his way rather sharply.

Further along in the article, this bit caught my attention:
Obama has made some converts among those who at first opposed a public withdrawal pledge. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who initially believed the July withdrawal pledge "denied us flexibility," said he changed his position and "came to believe this was the right decision" after Obama promised to base any U.S. drawdown on "conditions on the ground."
This is cute. Gates' loyalty is admirable, but it's obvious that he's only a "convert" to the extent that Obama has abandoned his fixed date rhetoric in favor of a more traditional and sensible "conditions on the ground" metric.

Wars are messy, and Obama is getting this one all over himself.

h/t Captain's Journal

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