“This is a change in personnel but not a change in policy,” President Obama said after he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal for talking smack about the administration and hired Gen. David Petraeus to head the Afghanistan war. Washington Independent national security reporter Spencer Ackerman isn’t so sure the policy hasn’t been changed. At very least, Petraeus will make the murky plan for troop withdrawal in 2011 less murky. That’s something.
Petraeus’ return to theater command indicates that an ambiguity in that policy has been clarified. It’s never been clear what exactly the pace and scope of troop withdrawals will be after Obama’s July 2011 date to begin the transition to Afghan soldiers and police taking the lead in securing the country. Obama said in his West Point speech announcing the date that “we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” But what does that really mean? It appeared like a straddle, a line that allowed Vice President Biden to say that troop withdrawals after 2011 would be substantial and also allowed the military not to face a hard and fast deadline. In Kabul and Islamabad, that didn’t work so well, as senior officials in the Afghan and Pakistani governments reportedly disbelieved that the U.S. really did seek a long-term relationship, as Obama repeatedly said.
Today Obama clarified what July 2011 means — somewhat. It means what Gen. Petraeus, his new commander, told the Senate he supports: not a “race for the exits,” but a “conditions-based,” open-ended transition. If that still sounds unclear, it’s because the policy itself is unclear. But by placing Petraeus at the helm, it means that 2012 will probably look more like right now, in terms of troop levels and U.S. troops fighting, than anything Biden prefers. That is, unless Petraeus and Obama come to a consensus that conditions on the ground necessitate more rapid withdrawals. Think of the deadline as getting deliberately blurrier. Tom Ricks called his last book about Petraeus “The Gamble.” It’s sequel time.