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On deadlines

One of the most contentious, and apparently confusing, issues to emerge after Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday is the U.S. president’s public call for a drawdown of U.S. troops to begin in July 2011. Sen. John McCain, Obama’s campaign rival, predictably ripped the decision in an article for ForeignPolicy.com, calling it "an arbitrary date" that "only ...

One of the most contentious, and apparently confusing, issues to emerge after Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday is the U.S. president’s public call for a drawdown of U.S. troops to begin in July 2011.

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s campaign rival, predictably ripped the decision in an article for ForeignPolicy.com, calling it "an arbitrary date" that "only emboldens al Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight."

Since Tuesday, the president’s advisors have probably spent more time explaining this aspect of the new strategy than anything else. And apparently they spent a lot of time debating it internally, as Peter Baker’s mammoth account of the White House’s deliberations, makes clear.

The idea, as explained by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is to shock the Afghan government into getting its act together, cracking down on corruption, providing services, etc. And Gates and Clinton have been clear — and more emphatic than the president — that any drawdown of U.S. troops will be "conditions-based." July 2011 is just a "timeframe for transition," as Clinton puts it. Withdrawal will be a "slope," not a "cliff," as National Security Advisor James L. Jones has said.

But will the Afghans deliver? This morning on ABC’s This Week, Clinton suggested that President Hamid Karzai is now committed to stepping up:

I think you have to look at what President Karzai said in his inaugural speech where he said that Afghan security forces would begin to take responsibility for important parts of the country within three years, and that they would be responsible for everything within five years."

Sounds great! But Baker’s story reveals that Karzai was prompted to say this by none other than… Hillary Clinton:

By this point, the idea of some sort of time frame was taking on momentum. Mrs. Clinton talked to Mr. Karzai before the Afghan leader’s inauguration to a second term. She suggested that he use his speech to outline a schedule for taking over security of the country.

Mr. Karzai did just that, declaring that Afghan forces directed by Kabul would take charge of securing population centers in three years and the whole country in five. His pronouncement, orchestrated partly by Mrs. Clinton and diplomats in Kabul, provided a predicate for Mr. Obama to set out his own time frame.

As an editor, I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea of deadlines. They focus the mind, and prevent projects from drifting. But from my experience, it’s especially important when dealing with an outside party you have little leverage over — such as a prospective author — that deadlines are mutually agreed upon.

Was this the case with July 2011? If Karzai doesn’t really think he’s going to be able to take charge of key areas in three years, then the Afghan leader was just telling the Americans what they wanted to hear. He certainly doesn’t seem to have been prepared for Obama’s July 2011 announcement, which seems to have taken his government by surprise.

And here lies a key difference between Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Whereas Karzai seems perfectly happy to live off the largesse of the international community indefinitely, Maliki was eager to get out from under the U.S. yoke. Iraq, with its vast oil reserves, a much more developed society, and a more robust sense of nationhood, is much more capable than Afghanistan of surviving by itself, even if it becomes just another Middle East rentier state.

Which raises the question: Why would Karzai even want us to leave? We’re protecting him from his enemies and investing billions of dollars in his desperately poor country. Even if his security forces got to the point where they could stand on their own, he’d still have to worry about the strength of his patronage network once the aid money starts to dry up, and Afghanistan doesn’t have a functioning tax system.

The deadline doesn’t necessarily bode well for the fight against corruption, either. If Karzai’s cronies want to maximize the amount of goodies they can stuff in their pockets, they’re going to have more incentive to do so if they believe the clock is ticking.

It’s going to be an interesting 18 months.

One of the most contentious, and apparently confusing, issues to emerge after Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday is the U.S. president’s public call for a drawdown of U.S. troops to begin in July 2011.

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s campaign rival, predictably ripped the decision in an article for ForeignPolicy.com, calling it "an arbitrary date" that "only emboldens al Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight."

Since Tuesday, the president’s advisors have probably spent more time explaining this aspect of the new strategy than anything else. And apparently they spent a lot of time debating it internally, as Peter Baker’s mammoth account of the White House’s deliberations, makes clear.

The idea, as explained by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is to shock the Afghan government into getting its act together, cracking down on corruption, providing services, etc. And Gates and Clinton have been clear — and more emphatic than the president — that any drawdown of U.S. troops will be "conditions-based." July 2011 is just a "timeframe for transition," as Clinton puts it. Withdrawal will be a "slope," not a "cliff," as National Security Advisor James L. Jones has said.

But will the Afghans deliver? This morning on ABC’s This Week, Clinton suggested that President Hamid Karzai is now committed to stepping up:

I think you have to look at what President Karzai said in his inaugural speech where he said that Afghan security forces would begin to take responsibility for important parts of the country within three years, and that they would be responsible for everything within five years."

Sounds great! But Baker’s story reveals that Karzai was prompted to say this by none other than… Hillary Clinton:

By this point, the idea of some sort of time frame was taking on momentum. Mrs. Clinton talked to Mr. Karzai before the Afghan leader’s inauguration to a second term. She suggested that he use his speech to outline a schedule for taking over security of the country.

Mr. Karzai did just that, declaring that Afghan forces directed by Kabul would take charge of securing population centers in three years and the whole country in five. His pronouncement, orchestrated partly by Mrs. Clinton and diplomats in Kabul, provided a predicate for Mr. Obama to set out his own time frame.

As an editor, I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea of deadlines. They focus the mind, and prevent projects from drifting. But from my experience, it’s especially important when dealing with an outside party you have little leverage over — such as a prospective author — that deadlines are mutually agreed upon.

Was this the case with July 2011? If Karzai doesn’t really think he’s going to be able to take charge of key areas in three years, then the Afghan leader was just telling the Americans what they wanted to hear. He certainly doesn’t seem to have been prepared for Obama’s July 2011 announcement, which seems to have taken his government by surprise.

And here lies a key difference between Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Whereas Karzai seems perfectly happy to live off the largesse of the international community indefinitely, Maliki was eager to get out from under the U.S. yoke. Iraq, with its vast oil reserves, a much more developed society, and a more robust sense of nationhood, is much more capable than Afghanistan of surviving by itself, even if it becomes just another Middle East rentier state.

Which raises the question: Why would Karzai even want us to leave? We’re protecting him from his enemies and investing billions of dollars in his desperately poor country. Even if his security forces got to the point where they could stand on their own, he’d still have to worry about the strength of his patronage network once the aid money starts to dry up, and Afghanistan doesn’t have a functioning tax system.

The deadline doesn’t necessarily bode well for the fight against corruption, either. If Karzai’s cronies want to maximize the amount of goodies they can stuff in their pockets, they’re going to have more incentive to do so if they believe the clock is ticking.

It’s going to be an interesting 18 months.

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