Petraeus: Withdrawal timeline does not mean “switching off the lights”

Petraeus: Withdrawal timeline does not mean “switching off the lights”

When General David Petraeus testifies today on Capitol Hill, his main job will be to carefully define the timeline for the beginning of America’s exit from Afghanistan, a timeline that has stakeholders in Washington and throughout the region confused and concerned.

"As the President has stated, July 2011 is the point at which we will begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government will take more and more responsibility for its own security," Petraeus wrote in his advanced questions submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee and obtained by The Cable. "As the President has also indicated, July 2011 is not a date when we will be rapidly withdrawing our forces and -switching off the lights and closing the door behind us."

His job will also be to defend President Obama’s decision to set a public date for the beginning of the withdrawal in the first place, by arguing that having a time line in the public discussion helps pressure the Afghans to move faster toward being able to govern and secure their country on their own.

"I believe there was value in sending a message of urgency — July 2011… But it is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is:  the date when a process begins, in which the reduction of US forces must be based on the conditions at the time, and not a date when the U.S. heads for the exits," he wrote to the committee. He stressed that multiple times that the pace of the drawdown would be "conditions based."

But even in his own writing to the committee, Petraeus acknowledged that the enemy, the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan, are waiting out the coalition and biding their time until foreign forces decide to leave.

"Insurgent leaders view their tactical and operational losses in 2010 as inevitable and acceptable.  The Taliban believe they can outlast the Coalition’s will to fight and believe this strategy will be effective despite short-term losses.  The Taliban also believe they can sustain momentum and maintain operational capacity," he wrote.

One of the main enablers of any U.S. exit is the development of the Afghan National Security Forces, which has not gone at the pace the coalition had hoped. Petraeus wrote that he would review the situation of the ANSF within four months of assuming command, if confirmed.

As of the latest review, only 5 out of 19 Afghan National Army brigades can function without a majority of their functions supported by the U.S., according to Petraeus, and only 2 out of 7 major headquarters can function properly without significant coalition support. As of June 27, there are 7,261 ANA troops in the city of Kandahar and 6,794 Afghan soldiers in Helmand province, Petraeus wrote.

He also said that a comprehensive plan to reintegrate some Taliban fighters is under final review with President Hamid Karzai and "offers the potential to reduce violence and provide realistic avenues to assimilate Pashtun insurgents back into Afghanistan society."

Petraeus promised to take a look at the rules of engagement that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan feel are tying their hands in the fight, but he didn’t say whether he was leaning toward changing them or not.

Meanwhile, confusion over the president’s timeline persists both in Washington and abroad as interested parties try to interpret the July 2011 date in a way that serves their own political interests.

 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, said Monday that there would be "a serious drawdown" next summer, seemingly getting ahead of the administration in an effort to appease the liberal wing of her caucus, which is threatening to not support more funding for the war.

Two of the committee members Petraeus will face today, Sens. John McCain, R-AZ, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, held a press conference Thursday to announce their opposition to setting any public date, no matter what the caveats.

Foreign leaders are especially confused, particularly the Afghan and Pakistani governments, who see a difference between public promises of drawdowns and private assurances from the administration that the July 2011 date would not precipitate large scale troop reductions.

One high level diplomatic source said that Pakistani and Afghan leaders believe that they were told by National Security Advisor Jim Jones that there was not going to be a big withdrawal and the there would be "no reduction in commitment" in July 2011.

But regardless of whether the administration sent mixed messages, the nuance of their time line policy has been misunderstood or ignored in the region, as various actors start to plan strategies with the expectation that U.S. troops are leaving.

"In retrospect, despite all the caveats, it was a mistake to put such a date certain for the beginning of withdrawal," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "The word beginning was lost and it strengthens the ability of different interests to hedge, which is exactly what they’ve been doing."