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Obama's Choice

He did the right thing, picking Petraeus and committing to success.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Let us now praise Barack Obama.

Obama's Choice

Someone should. The left, weary of the effort in Afghanistan, is uneasy about the appointment of General David Petraeus to replace General Stanley McChrystal—sensing that this was not the action of a president laying the groundwork for getting out. Conservatives, deeply (and correctly) suspicious of much of the rest of Obama’s foreign policy, can’t quite bring themselves to believe that the president may actually be doing the right thing.

But he is. Petraeus would not have taken the extraordinary step down the chain of command to take direct control in Afghanistan if he weren’t convinced that the mission, appropriately managed and resourced, can be accomplished—and that the president is committed to success. Petraeus doesn’t intend to supervise a holding action for a decent interval until retreat and defeat.

So Petraeus will modify the campaign plan, review the rules of engagement (or at least their implementation), and generally upgrade the military counterinsurgency effort. Will the president for his part move to make the needed changes on the civilian side to complement Petraeus’s actions? For now, Obama seems willing only to hint that he’s unhappy with the pathetic ankle-biting and turf wars that characterize the tenures of Afghanistan-Pakistan special envoy Richard Holbrooke and ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. The president will replace them, sooner rather than later.

Can we be confident that Obama is really going for victory? I think so. Consider his speech Wednesday, when he announced the replacement of McChrystal with Petraeus. After referring to our “vital mission” in Afghanistan, to doing “whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda,” he urged us “to remember what this is all about. Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere.”

Obama didn’t say we persist and we persevere—but only until July 2011. Indeed, Obama never mentioned that date, and he never mentioned withdrawal.

The next day, at a press conference with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Obama was asked whether the change in command in Afghanistan altered his “timetable for withdrawal.” In response, he reiterated that, above all, 

we had to be very clear on our mission. Our mission, first and foremost, is to dismantle and destroy al Qaeda and its affiliates so that they can’t attack the United States. .  .  . In order to achieve that, we have to make sure that we have a stable Afghan government, and we also have to make sure that we’ve got a Pakistani government that is working effectively with us to dismantle these networks.

He went on to explain that he had ordered additional troops to Afghanistan “to provide the time and the space for the Afghan government to build up its security capacities, to clear and hold population centers that are critical, to drive back the Taliban, to break their momentum.” And that “next year we would begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking more and more responsibility for its own security.”

So there’s still an intention—as there also was during Bush’s surge in Iraq—ultimately to hand over more responsibility to the locals. But Obama hastened to add:

We did not say that starting July 2011, suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan. We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. What we said is we’d begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility.

The only thing Obama could have done to more dramatically minimize the significance of the July 2011 date would have been explicitly to repudiate it. He should do that, and in a few months he may. 

Compare Obama to his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, speaking just a few days earlier on ABC’s This Week. Emanuel stressed that July 2011 is 

a firm date. .  .  . What will be determined at that date or going into that date will be the scale and scope of that reduction. .  .  . The July 2011 date, as stated by the president, that’s not moving. That’s not changing. .  .  . And the goal is to take this opportunity, focus on what needs to get done, and then on July 2011, begin the reduction of troops.

Emanuel’s comments now seem, post-McChrystal, no longer operative. And with the timetable mostly de-fanged, with July 2011 as the beginning of a “transition phase,” with Petraeus in charge and more changes to come—Emanuel and the antiwar forces within the administration have lost. As a result, Afghanistan can now be won.

—William Kristol


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