About July 2011

I listen when Ahmed Rashid talks, and Rashid says that Obama set the July 2011 “Phase Two” date unilaterally, sparking serious concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan about the U.S. commitment. I can believe that first part. I’ve heard from allied diplomats, representing countries with troops in Afghanistan, that they had minimal involvement in the Afghanistan-Pakistan review — so much so that they didn’t want to say anything about future strategy for fear of inadvertently contradicting Obama. And on the second part, those concerns manifested themselves. Aside from that, Rashid makes some scattershot points — Taliban might flee to the north & west of Afghanistan when the U.S. pushes through to the south & east; Afghanistan needs “nation building.” I don’t know if Rashid listened to McChrystal and Eikenberry’s testimony this week, but I think they gave reason to believe those concerns are mitigated if not outright answered. Still, points worth considering.

Marc Lynch provides a clear explanation of what July 2011 represents and what it doesn’t: a transition to a new and final phase of the war, but not its end. I truly have difficulty understanding why this is a hard concept to grasp. Sure, Obama’s a politician. And he surely knows that the press is going to misrepresent the plan in ways that benefit him politically. “Obama Pledges Troop Withdrawals” is much easier to grasp than “Obama Outlines Vision For Ultimate Transition To Strategic Overwatch With No Fixed Endpoint; Long-Term Political Commitments To Afghanistan, Pakistan Will Be ‘Phase Three’.” It would be naive to think that the administration doesn’t want the public to adopt the former interpretation even if the latter is what he’s actually delivering. (Well, I guess it’s never smart politics to set unreasonable expectations, but still.) On a conference call ahead of the West Point speech, one administration official lamented that July 2011 would be the most misunderstood aspect of the strategy. But I would respectfully suggest it’s actually pretty clear if you listen to what’s being said.

I’m not really sure what points Nate Fick is making in his contribution to this New York Times colloquy — I should have said earlier that all three of these arguments are packaged on the Times op-ed page — so I don’t want to say much. But I guess it’s that in a war like Afghanistan, political developments matter more than strictly military calculations; we should understand July 2011 in the former context; and it’s a dicey gamble but it might actually work so wait and see. I guess…?

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Spencer Ackerman

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