(photo by Marco Vossen)

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In Slate, Fred Kaplan sums up today’s White House summit meeting regarding Afghanistan:

If there were any doubts, President Obama’s press conference today with Afghan president Hamid Karzai should dispel them: We are so out of there, at least as a full-bore fighting force, and sooner than previously scheduled.

NATO had planned, with Karzai’s assent, to pull out all Western combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But Obama said today that he will scale back U.S. troops to a “support role” starting this spring—that is, sometime in the next few months.

I can’t say I’m surprised.  More than three years ago, I wrote here that Obama’s only real decision in Afghanistan was how to manage the United States’ inevitable defeat.  Sure, he wound up announcing a “surge” of 30,000 troops, but it was clear to me that this was meant to serve the same purpose as George Bush’s similar 2007 gambit in Iraq: that is, postponing and camouflaging our surrender, rather than avoiding it.

Here’s how the New York Times back then described Obama’s decision:

… as his top military adviser ran through a slide show of options, Mr. Obama expressed frustration. He held up a chart showing how reinforcements would flow into Afghanistan over 18 months and eventually begin to pull out, a bell curve that meant American forces would be there for years to come.

I want this pushed to the left,” he told advisers, pointing to the bell curve. In other words, the troops should be in sooner, then out sooner.

When the history of the Obama presidency is written, that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war.

That last paragraph was not only embarrassingly melodramatic, but misguided.  What Obama meant by “pushing it to the left” was that although he was unwilling to directly challenge the scheme proposed by the military establishment, he had no faith in it and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

Kaplan, writing today, gets this right, noting that “back in 2009, Obama announced when the pullout would begin at the same time that he announced the surge,” and also arguing that Obama:

… treated the strategy as an experiment; he gave it 18 months to work, and his generals assured him that would be enough time for the Afghan military to take the lead in a majority of the country’s districts, even though some of them knew very well it would take longer. They gambled that enough progress would be made to convince the president to give them more time and more troops. They gambled wrong.

And if the cost for refusing to confront the generals right away is several hundred U.S./NATO military deaths (not to mention likely far greater Afghan casualties)… well, unfortunately, that’s our cautious, consensus-seeking president for you.

It’s certainly a helluva a lot of “last men to die for a mistake.”


Photo by Marco Vossen under Creative Commons license