War Stories

Explaining What Obama Meant About “Beginning” To Withdraw in July 2011

Obama’s top aides go to Congress.

Congressional hearings are often such a slog to sit through. Today’s double-header—one in the Senate, another in the House, both featuring President Barack Obama’s top aides testifying on his Afghanistan war policy—was no exception.

It’s a tossup which moments marked the low point. Was it when three House members in a row asked the same question (which was thoroughly answered the first time), suggesting that they hadn’t been listening or lacked the imagination to stray from their scripts? Or was it when two senators took the historic occasion to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about how the competition for a new tanker-aircraft might impinge on the fortunes of the Boeing Co.

Still, the six hours of hearings—which tested the stamina of not just Gates but also Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—did clarify two bits of confusion from Obama’s Tuesday night speech at West Point.

First, what did the president mean when he announced that the 30,000 extra troops he’s sending to Afghanistan—some of whom won’t arrive until the summer of 2010—will begin to come home in July 2011? Second, how many more troops will the NATO allies send, and how much fighting will they do?

The answer to the first question is that 2011 will probably mark neither a deadline nor more than a token withdrawal. The answers to the second question are: not many and not much.

At today’s hearings, starting with Sen. John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate armed services committee, and continuing throughout the day, lawmakers expressed worry—in some cases, outrage—that declaring a timetable for withdrawal would only demoralize the Afghans and encourage the Taliban to “lie low” until we leave, then come out and pounce.

Gates and Mullen repeated time and again that this wasn’t going to happen. First, they said, the key word in Obama’s speech was that U.S. troops would begin to turn over the lead role in the fight to Afghan security forces. The pace of this process, and the end point of the withdrawal, will be determined by “conditions on the ground.”

Senior officials, who briefed reporters before and after Tuesday’s speech, made this same point. But Gates and Mullen took it further. “An exit strategy, goodbye … That’s not going to happen,” Mullen assured the House foreign affairs committee. “It’s a transfer and transition policy,” not a pullout.

In the Senate hearing, Gates stressed, “We’re not just going to throw these guys in the swimming pool and walk away.” The evaluation will be made “district by district, province by province.”

And, he continued, the “transition” will begin in “the most uncontested provinces”—that is, in an area that is not under Taliban threat. Even there, the U.S. soldiers or Marines won’t simply leave; they’ll back away and continue to “oversee” how the Afghan forces are handling the situation by themselves.

Several legislators asked what would happen if the Afghans weren’t ready by then. Gates and Mullen replied that they and the U.S. commanders in the field calculate that, because of Obama’s surge (and they did call it a “surge”), some Afghans will be ready by then. But a review of the situation will be conducted in December 2010; and if it looks like the Afghans won’t be ready by the following July, the administration may have to rethink its strategy.

In any case, Gates emphasized, even if the time seems ripe to pull out all U.S. combat forces, that doesn’t mean all U.S. troops will leave. We will continue to support Afghan security forces—through training, supplies, and other means—as an “important partner for the long haul.” Referring to the time 20 years ago when the CIA helped the mujahedeen oust the Soviet Union and then walked away, he added, “We will not repeat the mistakes of 1989.” (Back then, Gates was the CIA’s deputy director.)

Gates did note that Obama will withdraw some troops in July 2011 and that he’s inclined to see the date as “the beginning of a gradual process of thinning and reducing” U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (As Obama said in his West Point speech, the war must be balanced with other national programs, and the nation he most wants to rebuild is the United States.) However, the key words are beginning and gradual.

Both Gates and Mullen scoffed at Republicans’ claims that just talking about a timetable for withdrawal—even if it wasn’t much of a withdrawal—would embolden the Taliban or compel them to lie low until we leave.

The Taliban are already pretty emboldened, they said, to the point where it’s hard to see how they could get more so. As for the prospect of their lying low for 18 months, Gates remarked, “That would be terrific news.” It would give the U.S. troops and aid workers much freer rein to win hearts and minds, train the Afghan army, and develop the Afghan economy if they didn’t have to stave off the Taliban at the same time.

Gates pointed out that the surge in Iraq lasted 14 months, from January 2007 until March 2008. President George W. Bush and his officials announced from the outset that it would be of limited duration. Yet that didn’t affect the dynamic of its impact. Gates and Mullen called the Obama buildup an “extended surge,” in that it will last 19 months, possibly longer.

Of course, the Iraq surge coincided with the Sunni Awakening, which occurred spontaneously. In Afghanistan, U.S. commanders are trying to jump-start a similar awakening among the less militant members of the Taliban. It’s a huge gamble; but if it doesn’t work, the whole campaign isn’t likely to work, either, because neither the United States nor NATO has enough troops to pacify all the southern and eastern provinces, where the Taliban have their strongholds.

How will NATO help out? That question was also answered, to some extent, at today’s hearings. All three witnesses expressed confidence that, at a meeting later this week, the NATO ministers will commit to sending an additional 5,000 troops, maybe as many as 7,000.

Compared with the extra 30,000 U.S. troops, this is small stuff, but it would mark a real diplomatic feat, in that just a week ago, all the countries’ leaders said they were tapped out.

However, Gates also said that he hoped the extra NATO troops will be deployed in Afghanistan’s northern and western provinces, where the Taliban don’t pose as much of a threat. In other words, the most intense fighting will still be left largely to us.