"Lighting a Fire under the Afghans": Two points emerge about Obama's surge

Listening to today’s congressional testimony by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, two points are becoming clear.

First, the 18-month surge timeline does not have a deadline set in stone. July 2011 is not a deadline for withdrawal, it is a date for “beginning a process” of shifting responsibility for security to Afghan forces, Gates said several times today. When US forces actually leave will depend on “conditions on the ground.” This may or may not placate Republican critics of any “timetable” or “exit strategy.” It certainly will not reassure those Democrats who are skeptical about Obama sinking into a military quagmire.

Second, the target date appears to have been set primarily as an incentive to the Afghans to get their own act together, or Gates put it, “lighting a fire under” the Afghans.  Gates repeated several times that the worry within the administration was that unlike the Iraqis who actively wanted the Americans to get out of their country, the administration is afraid that the Afghans would be happy to have US troops stay indefinitely. Gates said that this wasthe “toughest part” of designing the strategy.

Relevant exchanges below.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona): The president announced that we would begin withdrawing a hard date of July 2011, which is — I don’t know why that date was particularly picked, which may be time in another session — but — so he’s announced that. But at the same time, he said conditions on the ground would.

Now, those are two incompatible statements. You either have a winning strategy and do as we did in Iraq, and then once it’s succeeded, then we withdraw. Or we — as the president said, we will have a date beginning withdrawal of July 2011. Which is it? It’s got to be one or the other. It’s got to be the appropriate conditions, or it’s got to be an arbitrary date. I — you can’t have both.

Gates: Where we begin the transition is the key factor here, Senator. As I suggested, we will have a thorough review in December 2010. If it appears that the strategy’s not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself.

McCain: Well, I say with respect, I think the American people need to know whether we will begin withdrawing in 2011, or — and conditions are right for that, or whether we will just be withdrawing no matter what.

Gates: Our current plan is that we will begin the transition in local areas in July of 2011. We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective.

McCain: I think that’s got to be made very clear, because right now the expectation level of the American people because of the president’s speech is that we will be withdrawing as of July 2011 regardless of conditions on the ground.


Senator Joe Lieberman (Independent D – Connecticut): And am I right that in the policy that the president announced last night, which does begin a transfer of security responsibility of July 2011 to the Afghans, there is no deadline for the end of that transfer; it will be based on conditions on the ground?

Gates: It will be based on conditions on the ground. But by the same token, we want to communicate to the Afghans this is not an open-ended commitment…

Lieberman: I agree.

Gates: …on the part of the American people and our allies around the world…

Lieberman: And I agree with that. Admiral Mullen…

Gates: …because we have to build a fire under them, frankly, to get them to do the kind of recruitment, retention, training and so on for their forces that allow us to make this transition.

Let me just draw one other analogy to Iraq. In Iraq, once it was clear the surge was working, it was pretty plain that the Iraqis wanted us out about as fast as possible. The security agreement and everything flowed from that.

That’s not entirely clear in Afghanistan. They live in a very rough neighborhood. And so we have the balancing act here, and frankly, the centerpiece of our debates for the last several months is, how do you get the Afghans to begin to step up to responsibility for their own future, their own security, in a way that allows us to have confidence that they will not once again become the safe haven for al Qaeda? That’s figuring out that balance in terms of how you incentivize and give a sense of urgency to the Afghans and at the same time signal resolve to our adversaries was the tough part of this for us.

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