I don’t like the July 2011 date for the beginning of a withdrawal that Obama announced in his Afghan speech. It has hurt us in the region. I believe it reflects Obama’s own hesitations and his need to placate his own party more than anything else. But let’s keep our perspective about it. George Will said last week that July 2011 would be when Obama unfurls his “mission accomplished” banner. Gene Robinson says the deadline gives the Taliban an out: “My belief is that if the Taliban begins losing ground, many of its fighters will just melt back into the population and bide their time until the president’s July 2011 deadline arrives.”
As became even clearer over the weekend, though, the July 2011 date is vague to the point of meaninglessness, which is exactly the way it should be. We don’t know how many forces we’d pull out, or how quickly. Gates talks of a significant role for 2-4 years. It also shouldn’t be exaggerated what the deadline means for the Taliban. If you are somewhere in the outskirts of Kandahar and the Marines are coming to clear out your area, waiting us out for 18 months is easier said than done. This is why talk of a “time horizon” to leave Iraq during the surge didn’t help al Qaeda or the Shia militias much if at all. It was much more important that we were going through Baghdad neighborhood by neighborhood clearing them out.
Let’s say, mindful of the deadline, all the Taliban simply leave Kandahar and its environs. That would be a tremendous benefit to us and to the Afghans, giving us uncontested control of the key city in the South for at least a year and a half or maybe more and allowing us to shape conditions there so it’s hard for the Taliban to regain its footing later. (Alas, that’s why the Taliban is much more likely to fight.) We know from Iraq, it’s not so easy to stop fighting, then start again. Sadr tried it with his militia periodically and every time he stopped fighting, it became harder for him to start up again.
In short, the deadline is a problem, but hardly an insuperable one. There are two other major problems with Obama’s speech in retrospect, though. He failed to do two things that Petraeus did when advocating the surge: 1) explaining in some detail how hard it’s going to be, and how the news is likelier to be worse before it gets better (Will has a point here — the deadline does serve to create unrealistic expectations); 2) explaining in some detail why it can succeed. Republicans on the Hill would be well advised to focus with McChrsytal on this latter point in particular during his testimony this week.