McClatchy reports that the Obama administration is "moving away from 2011 Afghan date." If this is true, Hope and Change have absolutely collapsed. The president will have shown that he can be bullied into whatever policy the Republicans and the generals want. That's political and policy suicide. The Afghanistan War isn't making us safer and it's not worth the cost, and it's past time to start bringing our troops home.
President Obama made a deal with the American people at West Point in December 2009. He declared that yes, he was escalating a deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan, but that "in 18 months, our troops will begin to come home." He also declared that "America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan" and that the "nation he's most interested in building is our own." According to Jonathan Alter, he even pinned down the Pentagon (or thought he did) when the decision was made:
"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."
Those assurances are burned into my brain as the only glimmer of hope in the deeply destructive escalation policy ordered by the president late last year. If McClatchy's read on the situation is correct, the Pentagon, the Republicans and the hawks inside the Democratic Party (who do not in any way represent their base, by the way) have somehow convinced the president to completely reverse himself. Now, the reasoning goes, we can't do the things we said we could do in 18 months, so we have to stay. Hence the giant red headline on the cover of The Huffington Post today: "FORGET 2011."
The President must immediately and unequivocally deny any suggestion that the July 2011 deadline is shifting further into the future. He must take a strong hand with the "unnamed senior officials" who are again working to box him into a decision-making process that predetermines the outcomes in favor of a protracted war. And if was smart, he would seriously consider moving the withdrawal start date forward in time in response to what any honest review of the current strategy will show: the escalation policy has failed.
Having said all that, there's a strong possibility McClatchy is getting played by some clever administration official who opposes the president's stated policy of a 2011 drawdown and is using the press to box him into another predetermined policy. Note how the official phrases the decision he or she is "leaking," emphasis mine:
"During our assessments, we looked at if we continue to move forward at this pace, how long before we can fully transition to the Afghans? And we found that we cannot fully transition to the Afghans by July 2011," said one senior administration official. "So we felt we couldn't focus on July 2011 but the period it will take to make the full transition."
The bolded text was never the announced policy. No one in the White House ever said anything about "fully transitioning to the Afghans by July 2011." The troop withdrawals were always slated to begin to start in July 2011 with the pace of the subsequent drawdown being determined by conditions on the ground. That's a plain fact of public record. The official quoted is misrepresenting the announced policy of the White House, and McClatchy is running with it. The only policy decision that seems to have actually been made is that the White House's timetable for the transition seems to end in 2014.
It seems that the people in the government who opposed the 2011 drawdown deadline in the first place continue to work through the press to redefine it into meaninglessness. If the president wants to pass on an office to his successor that leaves any real meaning to the words "Commander-in-Chief," he's got to assert himself, right now, against the forces inside the government that are challenging his prerogative to make military policy.
Let's be clear: a "transition" that drags this brutal, futile war out until 2014 is completely unacceptable. It bogs us down in a war that's not making us safer and that's not worth the cost for a ridiculous amount of time. And just as important, the American people won't support a time-line that long. Sixty percent of those polled by Bloomberg in early October thought the war was a lost cause. CNN found roughly the same number of people opposed the war. Most of those polled think Afghanistan is now a situation "like Vietnam." Most people polled by Newsweek said they wanted withdrawals to start either in July 2011 or sooner. The American people could not be more clear: they don't support this war, they don't believe the happy-talk coming out of the Pentagon, and they want the troops brought home.
The president must take personal responsibility for knocking down this whisper campaign about the withdrawal time-line moving further into the future, and he's got to make a decision, right now, to bring this war to a close on terms acceptable to the American people.
And here's a hint, Mr. President: dragging the war out until 2014 won't fly.
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