T Minus Two Years

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, July 12, 2010 | Go to article overview
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T Minus Two Years

Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Believe the president on Afghanistan.

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.

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