The Afghanistan Clock

President Obama has now swapped one distinguished general for another. But he urgently needs to address the underlying issue dividing his administration: Is July 2011 a real deadline for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing, or just a clever domestic political ploy?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. President Barack Obama has treated the most recent symptom of his Afghan malaise — an insubordinate, or at least indiscreet, general. He has not, however, addressed the underlying malady: a conflicted policy and a divided administration. In deciding last November to send more troops to Afghanistan in 2010 and then begin to take them out in 2011, Obama fashioned a compromise between his advisors and sought to balance conflicting public pressures. His solution seemed to work politically — but it also built an unavoidable tension into U.S. Afghanistan policy.

It is hard to keep everyone within an administration on the same page for one approach if most of them think (and some of them hope) that they will soon be heading in another direction entirely. For example, whereas Defense Secretary Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, have walked back the president’s July 2011 deadline, Vice President Joe Biden was quoted in Jonathan Alter’s recent book The Promise as predicting that it will occur on schedule and be substantial (White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said the same on June 20).

As for Petraeus, last week he emphasized to a Senate committee that July 2011 is "the date when a process begins, based on conditions; not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits," adding that his agreement with the president’s policy was "based on projections of conditions in July 2011."

In recent weeks one has also heard an increasing number of voices arguing against the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy Obama has now explicitly reaffirmed by tapping Petraeus to replace McChrystal. So far, none of the critics has suggested that U.S. forces do not face an insurgency in Afghanistan. Rather, those calling for a new, non-COIN strategy are advocating that the United States cease countering the Taliban insurgency, or at least cease trying hard to do so. This is precisely the expectation that Obama’s deadline is feeding, making it difficult to keep U.S. officials on task and in line, and making it even harder to bring allies and Afghans on board.

The strategy that McChrystal designed for Afghanistan is based on best practices in dealing with insurgencies over the past half-decade and in particular on Petraeus’s own successful application of those principles in Iraq in 2007. In naming Petraeus to succeed McChrystal, Obama is effectively recommitting himself to such a COIN strategy, at least for another year. But successful counterinsurgency requires the intense integration of civil and military services, U.S. and allied troops, Afghan and international efforts. That is very hard to do, particularly with the sort of synchronicity that the president’s timetable demands. Uncertainty about the president’s longer-term intentions only increases this difficulty. If everyone thinks the United States is heading for the exits next year, why should they pay large costs and take large risks now?

Back in 2007 in Iraq, under even more difficult local circumstances and with even less domestic support for their efforts, Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, set a model for civil-military collaboration: They never let daylight show between their positions — not to outsiders, not to official Washington, not even to their own staffs. Petraeus certainly understands the importance of such unconditional collaboration in getting NATO allies and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the same page — and moving at the same pace. But achieving that unity of action within the U.S. team, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding Obama’s intentions for 2011, will require the U.S. president to take a more hands-on approach to managing the war in Afghanistan than he has adopted to date.

James Dobbins is a senior fellow and distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation. He has held State Department and White House posts including assistant secretary of state for Europe, special assistant to the president for the Western Hemisphere, special adviser to the president, secretary of state for the Balkans, and ambassador to the European community. Dobbins has served on numerous crisis management and diplomatic troubleshooting assignments as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia for the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. In 2013, he returned to the State Department to become the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, returning to RAND in 2014.

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