This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
When fighting a war, ambiguity is often useful; ambivalence, never.
The disputes that led to the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal last week exposed a little too much ambivalence about Afghanistan in the Obama administration. Among the revelations in the Rolling Stone article that brought down McChrystal was his cavalier – even contemptuous – attitude toward Joe Biden, AKA “Who’s that?”
Biden apparently doesn’t think much of the official strategy in Afghanistan. He opposed the build-up of troops Barack Obama has approved and had instead argued for a much smaller anti-insurgent strategy with a short half-life.
Obama has linked an American withdrawal from Afghanistan to July of 2011. No one – maybe not the president himself – knows the precise nature of that link.
In a new book, “The Promise” journalist Jonathan Alter quoted Biden as saying, “In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out, bet on it.” But Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently called that date “a starting point,” and that any withdrawal would depend on what’s actually happening on the ground.
Obama may be on the same page. On Sunday, he said the United States won’t necessarily “suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us” on that magic date.
But the president isn’t saying anything concrete about how fast and under what conditions the troops would be pulled out – all we really know is that he’s being far more vague and guarded than the loose-lipped Biden.
Vague may be good right now. If Obama were to reaffirm what Biden said, setting a date certain for withdrawal, he’d be telling the Taliban that they’d nearly defeated the NATO mission in Afghanistan. They’d hang on ferociously in the face of the current U.S. offensive, and America’s Afghan allies would see the writing on the wall and start cutting deals that would inevitably bring the Taliban back to power.
Some of Obama’s Republican critics, most prominently Sen. John McCain, say the president ought to simply abandon that July 2011 date and say the troops will stay until the Taliban have been defeated.
But that could sabotage the mission politically: Most of Obama’s core supporters probably want the United States out of Afghanistan yesterday. Many Americans appear to have forgotten what the nine-year-long war is all about. (Hint: It has something to do with people who flew airplanes into skyscrapers in 2001.)
Presumably, a lot of the Democratic liberals close to Obama share Biden’s preference for a fast, certain stand-down next summer. Gates and Gen. David Petraeus – McChrystal’s replacement as top commander in Afghanistan – may well share McCain’s stay-until-we-win approach.
This administration is conflicted on Afghanistan. We can only hope that behind his vagueness, the president knows exactly what he intends to do there.