Foreign Policy Blogs

Exiting the Exit Strategy?

With all the hub-bub about the Wikileaks, tragic death of the humanitarian workers, President Karzai’s anti anti-corruption crusade, etc. an important seachange in the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy has appeared; The administration is discreetly walking back its July 2011 drawdown date. Here is Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week [my emphasis]:

“I think we need to reemphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process,” Gates said on the ABC News program “This Week.”

“Drawdowns early on will be of fairly limited numbers,” he said. “It will depend on the conditions on the ground.”

And as Faheem Haider discussed, here is Gen. David Petraeus on ‘Meet the Press‘ yesterday [emphasis mine]:


'We're going extra innings, folks.'

MR. GREGORY:  General Petraeus says he supports the beginning of troop withdrawal next July, but it’s a qualified response to a highly charged issue back in Washington.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Vice President Biden has also commented on it.  He said recently, I think, it could be as little as a couple of thousand troopers who go home next July.  Again, that remains to be seen, and it would be premature to have any kind of assessment at this juncture about what we may or may not be able to transition.  What the president very much wants from me, and, and what we talked about in the Oval Office is the responsibility of a military commander on the ground to provide as best professional military advice, leave the politics to him.  Certainly I’m aware of the context within which I offer that advice, but that just informs the advice, it doesn’t drive it.  The situation on the ground drives it. That’s what he wants, that’s what he, he told me to provide, and that’s what I will provide.

And last, but not least, a withdraw date was not even mentioned in President Obama’s Iraq Withdrawal speech two weeks ago. Why would he talk about Afghanistan anyways, it was a speech about Iraq? Well, strange rhetorical voice out of no where, first, President Obama has often contrasted the two wars it would have been a seamless maneuver after discussing the US withdrawal from Iraq to his stated withdrawal timeline for America’s other war. Secondly, up to this point President Obama hasn’t spoken about his Afghan policy without mentioning the withdrawal that was key to his plan. I’ve been highly critical of the second as inevitably, that’s the part of the speech/press conference/memo that everyone focused on.

Do I think the administration is doing an about face and fundamentally changing their Afghan strategy? Not really. I think troops will be withdrawn at the July 2011 date, but the administration is preparing the American public for it not to be a substantial one. In other words, it will be more of  a trickle than a flood. This does not mean the administration can’t once again change its mind, and its rhetoric accordingly, but these current pronouncements from the policy’s leaders and implementers signals a longer term commitment to a substantive military presence in Afghanistan.

Michael Cohen of Democracy Arsenal offers the opposite opinion.