Cautiously Optimistic

by Reihan Salam

There are plenty of things to be concerned about. Senator McCain is troubled by the president’s timetable.

What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the President’s decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region – all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war. A withdrawal date 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.

Yet I think the president has given himself room to maneuver.

Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

Assuming this really is a conditions-based decision, setting a target date for withdrawal isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The trouble is that the timetable might be so overoptimistic as to set unreasonable public expectations, and I think that’s what worries Senator McCain. Given the political constraints the president faces — less than a quarter of Democrats believe that a troop surge will improve the security situation in Afghanistan and a large and growing number want out — I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Spencer Ackerman wrote a useful scene-setting post before the speech, in which he suggests the influence of Petraeus and his framework for approaching the “transition to overwatch.”

Senior administration officials previewing the speech said July 2011 begins an open-ended process of gradual transition of combat responsibilities from U.S. troops to their Afghan pupils. The pace and ultimate endpoint of that transition has not been set, and officials said it would be evaluated “province by province.” Similarly, the correlative withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is undetermined and will be evaluated based not on timetables, but on conditions on the ground — pending another review of Afghanistan strategy, which I am told is likely to occur by the end of 2010.

There are no guarantees, obviously, but the speech could have been much worse.

Michael Rubin has an interesting take on what he’s calling President Obama’s “finite commitment” at Forbes.com. His basic point is that while Bush’s Iraq surge demonstrated the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Iraq, thus delivering a psychological blow to insurgents who intended to wait out the U.S. presence, Obama’s Afghanistan surge creates a new political timetable that the Taliban can use to their advantage, i.e., if there is another strategic review at the tail end of 2010, well, that’s an excellent time to ramp up casualties. I’m not sure that’s true, but it is an important point.

Could the president have announced an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan as a first-term president? I know that we hate to be crudely political, but President Bush announced his surge strategy in 2006, after a Republican rout in the midterm elections. Reelection was not an issue and advancing a domestic policy program was not an issue. We can hope that presidents of either party will govern without regard for reelection, but that implies governing without any regard for public opinion. And given President Obama’s instincts, I’m not sure I want to see him act as a politically unconstrained philosopher-king.

I really want to know what Frederick Kagan thinks.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.