The ouster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in favor of Gen. David Petraeus this week had the intended effect of a reset button on the war in Afghanistan, at least inside the Beltway. Outside of Washington, it appears to have focused attention on the perilous state of the war, and the confusing nature of the mission. In the latest poll on the war, approval on the war is nearing a low ebb, and a large plurality believes the US is losing. Withdrawal was not polled by Newsweek, but I’d expect at least a plurality in favor.

However, the shift to Petraeus has created the opportunity for warhawks to move the goalposts some more. With the halo firmly placed on Petraeus’ head, these Very Serious Foreign Policy Analysts and members of Congress want the restrictions on him lifted, particularly the July 2011 “inflection point” meant to be a transition to removing troops from the country. You can see it all over the Sunday shows today. Huckleberry Graham puts it best:

Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday that the White House needed to clarify its July 2011 Afghanistan withdrawal deadline in order for Gen. David Petraeus to get the job there done.

“When it comes to deadlines, we need to take that off his back,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding that if the Obama administration was intent on withdrawing troops by that date no matter what, “if that’s the policy it will doom this operation.”

The deadline must come “off his back.” It’s a terrible burden and it will cripple the war effort. “This is a chance to start over completely,” he said revealingly (hey, every war needs a new start nine years in). This sets up a win-win for the hawks. If they get the deadline lifted, they go on their merry imperial adventure. If they don’t, they can blame the inevitable loss on the deadline and retreat to the “stabbed in the back” dolschstosslegende.

Dianne Feinstein, predictably, agreed with Graham.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cali.), whose hawkish grounding has angered progressive in the past, likely facilitated that anger again, when she told “Fox News Sunday” that if General David Petraeus asked for more troops next summer, he should be granted them.

“I would say give it to him, absolutely,” said the California Democrat. “Now, let’s talk about the deadline. This is a transition point toward the beginning of a withdrawal or a drawdown as Petraeus said in his transcript before the Armed Services [Committee]. And I think he has flexibility realistically. Ten years is a long time to fight a war, particularly with what happened before the 10 years. And so we need to understand that [we have] to get the military trained, get the government online, secure and stabilize, and I think do away with the drugs to a great extent, because the drugs are now fueling the Taliban.”

Actually, $15,000 payoffs from the trucking contractors to allow the US supply chain to pass through fuels the Taliban and provides a significant source of their funding, but let’s not nitpick. That only comes from that unreliable rag known as the House Oversight Committee.

Feinstein’s money quote was “I think we put all of our eggs in the Petraeus basket.” The inside-the-Beltway chatter talks about Petraeus’ political capital and how he must be given every chance to succeed. The person on the street asks, succeed at what? Why are we spending a billion dollars a year per Al Qaeda member in Afghanistan? Why is the urgency of the war effort predicated on destroying “safe havens” when we have active, ongoing covert operations in 75 countries doing the same thing, which shows that eliminating the threat in Afghanistan would do nothing to stop the threat of safe havens?

I would imagine that Petraeus wins this power play. The President is already talking about July 2011 defensively, that it’s not a drawdown start date but the beginning of a transition process. It has deliberately been kept vague, and that’s by design – Feinstein’s probably right that Petraeus has flexibility under it because of the lack of definition. Senior officials have floated a “Plan B” counter-terrorism approach, including a full Karzai-Taliban reconciliation, but now that they’ve put the patron saint of counter-insurgency in charge, change in strategy will cause the lesser angels (the Lindsey Grahams) to cry betrayal.

David Dayen

David Dayen