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Anxiety Reigns in Washington Over Afghanistan

There’s a palpable feeling this week that the bill has come due on Afghanistan. In Jonathan Alter’s book “The Promise,” he describes a meeting between Obama and the military leadership, where he buttonholes them into a very specific time frame for progress.

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus, through the New York Times, and more particularly the hawkish allies inside the Administration, are already backpedaling from this only 6 months into the engagement.

Six months after President Obama decided to send more forces to Afghanistan, the halting progress in the war has crystallized longstanding tensions within the government over the viability of his plan to turn around the country and begin pulling out by July 2011.

Within the administration, the troubles in clearing out the Taliban from a second-tier region and the elusive loyalties of the Afghan president have prompted anxious discussions about whether the policy can work on the timetable the president has set. Even before the recent setbacks, the military was highly skeptical of setting a date to start withdrawing, but Mr. Obama insisted on it as a way to bring to conclusion a war now in its ninth year.

For now, the White House has decided to wait until a review, already scheduled for December, to assess whether the target date can still work. But officials are emphasizing that the July 2011 withdrawal start will be based on conditions in the country, and that the president has yet to decide how quickly troops will be pulled out.

There’s no question that the July 2011 date was pre-conditioned; Obama made no bones about that. But he did demand at least some progress before committing to extend that timeline. And there really hasn’t been any. Marja, a tiny collection of farming villages, remains a mess. The Kandahar operation hasn’t gotten off the ground. The Taliban remains generally strong, and there’s less a partner in Hamid Karzai now than there was six months ago. The “Minerals Miracle” report from yesterday clearly sought to provide a rationale for staying, but it means almost nothing given the security and infrastructure challenges.

The Washington Post gets at the upset in official circles that their splendid little war, now nine years in the making, isn’t going quite as planned. Both the House and Senate will hold hearings today and tomorrow with Gen. Petraeus and Michele Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy (thought to be in line as the next Secretary of Defense).

I don’t expect a strategic reset immediately, but there is clearly pressure on the Administration inside the Beltway to produce results. If a mass movement started to oppose the war vocally from the outside, it the war effort would be hard to sustain.

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David Dayen

David Dayen