Last veterans day, Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus had a polite but pointed exchange in the White House Situation Room. The president wanted to know why the Pentagon needed 21 months to send 40,000 troops to Afghanistan when it had taken only six months to send a similar number to Iraq in 2007. When Petraeus began to explain—saying that the Afghanistan escalation wasn’t modeled on his surge in Iraq—Obama cut in with a wry reminder that, yes, in at least one sense, the two missions were the same. Petraeus was expected to work his magic in each, and in roughly the same amount of time.
The Obama-Petraeus relationship is now central to the war in Afghanistan (where last week Petraeus replaced Gen. Stanley McChrystal). But it’s by no means a comfortable dynamic for either man. “The only way we’ll consider this [continuing the war with more troops] is if we get the troops in and out in a shorter time frame,” Obama told Petraeus and other advisers in the room that day.
A shorter time frame. From the moment the president announced his plan to start pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan next summer, the Pentagon and its allies (including Hillary Clinton) have tried to fuzz up the timetable. Contingencies must always be accounted for, but to hear the chatter from military officers, you would think that the intentions of the president and the vice president don’t mean much. It’s naive, we’re told by the wise guys on cable TV, to believe we’ll be withdrawing from Afghanistan any time soon.
There’s only one problem with betting the smart money on a long commitment: it’s not so smart. Obama has said that we won’t “turn out the lights” in Afghanistan in July 2011; and, indeed, some residual forces will be there for decades. But my reporting during the last several months suggests that a significant withdrawal will begin within, at the most, 18 months to two years.
There are at least three reasons—military, financial, and -political—to take the president at his word that the current commitment of 100,000 troops will be of short duration.
Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham keep pushing Petraeus on whether he truly supports Obama’s policy. They use Joe Biden’s quote to me (“In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”) and Obama’s question to Petraeus on Nov. 29 inside the Oval Office (“If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?” Petraeus responded: “Yes, sir, in agreement.”) to make it seem as if Obama is ramming the policy down the Pentagon’s throat.
And in truth, that’s exactly what’s happening: the commander in chief is calling the shots. On the way to the Oval Office before the Petraeus meeting, Biden asked Obama if beginning a significant withdrawal was a presidential order that could not be countermanded by the military. The president said it was.
Petraeus has immense stature, of course, and after the firing of two commanding generals in a row (Gen. David McKiernan was relieved in early 2009), Obama can’t get rid of him without a firestorm. But the general knows that with Afghanistan already the longest war in American history, he has only a small window in which to combine military force with creative diplomacy in a way that yields real improvement on the ground. If he can’t do it fast enough, the president will conclude that 100,000 troops actually harm progress by making the U.S. look like occupiers. At which point he’ll revert to the Biden Plan—kill Al Qaeda operatives with drones—and forget about Petraeus’s theories of counterinsurgency.
The country simply cannot afford a trillion-dollar commitment to nation building. The only way funding will continue much longer is if Republicans take control of Congress this fall. Even then, the war remains unpopular with the public, a point that won’t be lost on the GOP (as RNC chair Michael Steele’s antiwar comments last week attest). And Obama is hardly oblivious to the electoral implications. Let’s say that Petraeus insists that the July 2011 timeline be pushed back a year, which is quite possible considering the current problems on the ground. That means the de-escalation—and the political windfall—will begin around the summer of 2012, just in time for the Democratic National Convention. In other words, Americans should get used to it: we ain’t staying long.
Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.