x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A firm date for uncertain action in Afghanistan

The US president has set July 2011 as the date at which 'the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan' will begin, yet his national security adviser says 'in no manner, shape or form' would the US withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011. Whatever happens in 2011, one thing is already clear: Barack Obama, like his predecessor George Bush, is now viewed as a 'war president'.

The US President Barack Obama has set July 2011 as the date at which "the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan" will begin, yet his national security adviser says "in no manner, shape or form" would the US withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011. In his speech at West Point on Tuesday, Mr Obama laid out his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan and said: "Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. And now we must come together to end this war successfully. For what's at stake is not simply a test of Nato's credibility; what's at stake is the security of our allies and the common security of the world. "Now, 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." The following day in Senate hearings, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates was pressed on whether this date was "locked in" for the beginning of US troop withdrawals he suggested that it could be open for re-evaluation. After the same question was raised at a White House press briefing the same day, press secretary Robert Gibbs sought clarification from the president. Chip Reid, reporting for CBS News said: "Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it is locked in - there is no flexibility. Troops will start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel." On Thursday, a news report from the US Department of Defense said: "July 2011 is not a withdrawal date, but a specific target date for beginning to transition security responsibility to Afghan forces, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on several morning talk shows today. " 'We've been given very clear direction from the president to start the transfer of responsibility for security to the Afghan security force,' Navy Adm Mike Mullen said on American Morning on CNN. 'July of 2011 is a time where we can start to transition, ... but it's not a hard deadline to leave.'" In an interview with BBC News, Mr Obama's national security adviser, Gen James Jones said: "Its very important that people in Afghanistan hear this very clearly: this is not a withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in 2011, it is a decision to turn over to the Afghans some of the responsibility where they are ready to accept that responsibility. But in no manner, shape or form is the United States leaving Afghanistan in 2011." In the Senate on Thursday, administration officials were again being questioned on the significance of the date Mr Obama had set. The New York Times reported: "Defense Secretary Robert M Gates said July 2011 'will be the beginning of a process, an inflection point, if you will, of transition for Afghan forces as they begin to assume greater responsibility for security.' He went on to say that the pace of the withdrawal would be determined by 'conditions on the ground'. " 'It will be a gradual but inexorable process,' Mr. Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in remarks on President Obama's plan to ship about 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan next year, bringing the total American troops there to about 100,000. "Several members of the Foreign Relations Committee clearly wanted far more specifics than Mr Gates offered in his nuanced remarks. Indeed, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, was skeptical even about the July 2011 target date for beginning to bring home the troops, calling it 'clearly aspirational'." Reporting on the same senate hearings, The Washington Post said: "In an opening statement and in comments at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gates tried to clarify his response to sharp questioning the day before on whether the deadline to begin withdrawal was as hard and fast as Obama had appeared to make it. " 'July 2011, the time at which the president said the United States will begin to draw down our forces, will be the beginning of a process,' Gates said. 'But the pace and character of that drawdown, which districts and provinces are turned over and when, will be determined by conditions on the ground. It will be a gradual but inexorable process.' "Those provinces and districts, a senior Pentagon official said, are likely to be areas that already are relatively peaceful, adding, 'There are places we could transfer now.' "The official described the deployment curve as beginning at a baseline of the 68,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, rising at a 45-degree angle to 100,000, then continuing horizontally until July 2011 before beginning to slope back down. The fall 'could be steep if everything is hunky-dory,' he said, but 'it could be much more elongated'." In the neoconservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, James Ceaser wrote: "President Obama faces the unprecedented challenge of being a war president in charge of a peace party. His emergence in this new role less than a week before he picks up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo has been some time in coming. It was one thing for Obama to speak of Afghanistan as the good war during his presidential campaign, when the military situation appeared stable, or even during the first months of his presidency, when there was hope that adding more troops, as he did last spring, could bring the situation quickly under control. "All the early signals of the administration, from the hasty promise to close Guantanamo to the jettisoning of the term 'war on terror,' were calculated to make Obama into a peacetime president and leave the lingering difficulties of continuing military activity to be blamed on his predecessor. But reality came knocking in the form of mounting opposition from the enemy in Afghanistan. Forced to decide between losing a war and embracing a surge of his own, Obama finally chose the military option. He is now, openly and explicitly, a leader at war, and war exerts a logic of its own. It is no friend to reluctance or nuance. If war is to be waged, it must not be done half-heartedly, but, to use the president's words, with 'resolve unwavering'. The greater part of Obama's problem may be prosecuting it from within the modern Democratic party. "Americans sometimes forget how often our wars have been contested politically, but one thing that all war presidents could traditionally count on was support from their own party."

pwoodward@thenational.ae