President Barack Obama is making the holiday rounds as Christmas and New Years approaches, but this week he’ll reflect in a particularly morbid fashion. The White House and Pentagon have prepared a disturbingly low-key ceremony to sell another year of war in Afghanistan. But as they spin their narrative into the victory column, they’re not downplaying a promised review or July 2011 as a withdrawal date.
Ghosts were alive at one point. These dates never existed to begin with.
The current state of Afghanistan is open to interpretation, and those who visit often leave with opposite conclusions. U.S. and NATO officials argue that they’ve turned the nine-year war around through a relentless pursuit of Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership. Rows of high-level officials, hundreds of “commanders,” and countless foot soldiers have been eliminated by U.S. Special Forces, CIA-trained Afghan “hunter-killer” teams, and UCAVs utilizing the latest military technology. Helmand and Kandahar provinces, now saturated with NATO and Afghan troops, are being successfully denied to the Taliban.
But considering the darker version of reality leaking out of Afghanistan, U.S. military strategy has been upstaged by the political strategy designed to hawk it. While the war’s outcome remains a toss-up, the Obama administration has effectively ignored a majority opposition as it speeds past two checkpoints. These were no real checkpoints though, merely fakes conjured to buy time.
That Afghanistan’s war review has become “just another box to check,” that “2014 is the new 2011,” isn't possible. Not when a dual-track political strategy was devised from the beginning to justify the surge, then sustain an escalation to the war.
And it’s worked judging by the lack of interest and outrage from the war's opponents.
Given the juxtaposition of controversy and apathy, it’s tempting to believe that the White House regrets announcing a formal review in the first place. Now pressured to speak without much to say, Obama and his officials must highlight their success without sounding overly positive. Otherwise people - allies and enemies - may fall under the impression that large numbers of troops could begin to withdraw relatively soon.
However Obama’s “dilemma” is unfolding perfectly, as the review was necessary to quiet political dissent, and the same goes for July 2011. Many assume that Obama hedged himself by announcing July in the same sentence that he deployed new troops, envisioning “Plan B” as his out-clause. Insufficient military headway would serve as political cover for a gradual withdrawal coordinated with the “off-shore” option.
Yet this strategy, while seemingly adept, created the illusion of escape, not a real exit. Having twice trapped Obama with its own political power and through his campaign rhetoric, the Pentagon (with the GOP's help) is prepared for another a knock-out fight that Obama is ill equipped to win. Nor would he pull out and risk another attack on U.S. soil.
Afghanistan is low on American priorities, but a messy exit would still create problems in 2012. A terror attack outside the country would multiply them beyond control.
Obama had already resolved himself to a war-time re-election campaign before assuming office, and finalized this decision after signing off on 30,000 troops and five more years. A muted review became all the more inevitable after his awkward handling of the last assessment. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday in preparation for Tuesday’s monthly “AfPak” review. Obama will then convene his National Security Council on Thursday, release an "updated" version of U.S. strategy, and issue a statement afterward. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also take reporters’ questions.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters on Monday that the review wasn't complete (even though it was finalized over the weekend) and therefore it was "premature to draw any definitive conclusions.” Of course, Gates announced last week from Afghanistan, "I will go back convinced that our strategy is working,” adding that progress “has exceeded my expectations."
Barring any “major changes,” this is the furthest extent of Washington's “review.”
The White House and Pentagon’s strategy was designed with only two options in mind. For now limited military progress won't be needed to frighten Americans, as “Plan A,” always the likelier scenario, has won out. 2009’s disaster set up 2010 perfectly, and the White House and Pentagon knew that their argument would bend without breaking. Afghanistan has improved - because it had nowhere to go except up.
Despite the absence of political progress, a massive injection of troops, funds, and attention ensured that demonstrable military progress would manifest in piles of dead Taliban and cleared space. Then Afghanistan’s improvement would be exploited to justify a longer stay and to keep the bulk of U.S. troops in place after July 2011. Naturally they must hold and build now that they’ve cleared.
Amusingly, the GOP wants to terminate Obama's deadline as if they fail to realize the obviousness of its falsity.
Tuned out from critics who argue for a political settlement, the Pentagon arrogantly believes that they “don’t understand the strategy.” Just one more summer to crack the Taliban, maybe two. Or four. Then they'll talk. It’s also possible that the Pentagon considered July 2011 as a psychological tactic to see if the Taliban would actually bite. However its leadership quickly sniffed out the decoy, propagandizing Obama's deadline to local Afghans but warning its soldiers of the long fight ahead. They know that Washington, contrary to its public rhetoric, intends to stay for the foreseeable future.
Gates is fond of warning the Taliban, as he did last week at FOB Howz-e-Madad in Kandahar, "if you think this is over come next summer, think again.” Taliban chief Mullah Omar responded by vowing a war of attrition to the end.
It simply makes no sense for the White House to withdraw 5,000 or 10,000 troops at a time the Pentagon considers its decisive moment. NATO’s current force level of 131,000 remains insufficient to hold every patch of Taliban territory. A thousand troops will be lucky to leave after next summer and they will redeploy only to fulfill Obama’s “promise,” not because they won’t be missed. General David Petraeus must have crossed his fingers when Obama pushed him on 18 months; Petraeus began tearing down July 2011 in May 2010.
Or else December and July were never real, instead created to leapfrog each other and give Washington extra years of breathing room.
For their part U.S. officials insist that present gains don’t relieve the hard fighting ahead. 2011 may see the heaviest fighting to date as both sides expend all of their energy to capitulate the other. U.S. commanders are vowing a winter campaign to disrupt the Taliban’s counter-offensive and ordnance is being dropped at a record pace.
"We believe that we have arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of Afghanistan," Petraeus told reporters while traveling with Gates.
But, keeping in mind negative reports issued by the Pentagon itself, Petraeus added, "clearly again, the Taliban does still have areas in which it has the freedom of movement and arguably momentum." This balance sought by the Pentagon - slowing the Taliban’s momentum without stopping it - provides the optimum conditions to continue the war as is.
As for the White House, its strategy also transitions to the next phase of minimizing July 2011 (there's already chatter that next summer is "too early" for troop decisions). But not before dumping another review into an economic soup. For the third straight year Obama has charted Afghanistan’s future amid a domestic crisis. Although he surely wishes to avoid these pains, the White House has deftly exploited America’s economic woes to conceal a sub-par foreign policy.
Gates approved 30,000 troops, 10,000 below the Pentagon’s minimum recommendation, because he recognized the value of a low profile. Also count on White House senior adviser David Axelrod to make lemonade out of the GOP’s Congressional victory, using the hawkish party not just to secure funding but to keep the war’s burner on low. He’s fully aware that Afghanistan ranks fifth or sixth on America’s priority list and wants to keep it there.
You won’t find anything Afghan-related on the White House’s front page until Thursday, and it will be back to tax cuts on Friday.
Although Obama worries in Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars that he has only two years of political capital in Afghanistan, a 2014-2016 exit window indicates what he really thinks - that he can stay two full terms. So the next time you hear the word “downplay” in connection with the White House’s review or July 2011, consider the injustice of Washington’s well-laid scheme to deceive the U.S. and NATO publics.
Perhaps its military strategy will mimic the success of its political strategy, but changing reality won't be as easy as managing perceptions.