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With command shift, talk turns to withdrawal

NYT: As President Obama tries to maintain flexibility on the Afghanistan withdrawal timeline, many are wondering just what will happen next summer.
Image: Gen. David Petraeus speaks at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor Tribute
Gen. David Petraeus passes out commemorative coins to Purple Heart recipients in New Windsor, New York, on Friday.Spencer Platt / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

When he ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan last December, President Obama stressed that they would not stay forever. “After 18 months,” he said, “our troops will begin to come home.”

Last weekend, though, he scorned the “obsession around this whole issue of when do we leave,” saying he was focused on making sure the troops were successful. The July 2011 deadline he set was intended to “begin a process of transition,” he said, but “that doesn’t mean we suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us.”

As he hands command of the war to Gen. David H. Petraeus, Mr. Obama is trying to define what his timeline means — but not too much. Even as developments in Afghanistan have made meeting the deadline all the more daunting, Mr. Obama has sent multiple signals to multiple audiences, sticking by his commitment to begin pulling out while insisting that it does not mean simply walking away.

But if he is maintaining maximum flexibility with deliberate ambiguity, the conflicting emphasis has left many wondering just what will happen next summer. The question dominated General Petraeus’s last appearance on Capitol Hill two weeks ago when he testified as head of the United States Central Command overseeing the region. And it may flavor his return on Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee as it moves to confirm his new assignment as commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Military officers and intelligence officials bristle at the deadline, because they said it had convinced many Afghans that Americans would not be around for the long term, making them less willing to defy the Taliban. The president’s Democratic allies in Congress, on the other hand, are pressing him to make sure that July 2011 begins a “serious drawdown,” as Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, put it.

The issue has taken prominence not just because of Mr. Obama’s appointment of General Petraeus to replace Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, but because House leaders want to pass a war spending measure before leaving town for the Fourth of July break. Some liberal lawmakers hope to use the bill to force conditions for scaling back the American military commitment.

The White House said Monday that the July 2011 deadline was intentionally flexible, but had had some desired effect. “We want the Afghans to understand that we’re going to be expecting more out of them, so to the extent that it conveys a sense of urgency, that’s an important message,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

At the same time, he noted that the president had not decided how quickly the drawdown would take place. “There’s clearly going to be an enduring commitment to Afghanistan past 2011, whatever the slope,” he said.

But that part of the message has not transmitted to many in the rural reaches of Afghanistan, where American troops regularly encounter Afghans who assume they are all leaving next year.

In the village of Abdul Ghayas in Helmand Province last month, for example, a local resident exasperated two Marines when he told them that he was nervous about helping with their plans for a new school out of fear that the Taliban would retaliate after the Americans went home next year.

“That’s why they won’t work with us,” Cpl. Lisa Gardner, one of the Marines, told a reporter traveling with the unit. “They say you’ll leave in 2011 and the Taliban will chop their heads off. It’s so frustrating.”

Later in the day, Corporal Gardner and the other Marine, Cpl. Diana Amaya, reported the villager’s reaction back at the base. Lance Cpl. Caleb Quessenberry advised them on how to deal with similar comments in the future. “Roll it off as, ‘That’s what somebody’s saying,’ ” he told them. “As far as we know, we’re here.”

A senior American intelligence official said the Taliban had effectively used the deadline to their advantage. He added that the deadline had encouraged Pakistani security services to “hedge their bets” and continue supporting militant groups like the Haqqani network.

“They’ve been burned and they’ve seen this movie before,” the official said, noting the American disengagement after the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Should the war deteriorate, he added, Pakistani leaders are thinking, “We don’t want Haqqani turning around and coming this way.”

Such factors have animated the debate in Washington. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was defying Washington because of the deadline.

“A lot of the behavior that Karzai is displaying, a lot of the things that are going on right now are a direct result of the president’s commitment to beginning withdrawal,” he said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

On the other side of the spectrum, Ms. Pelosi told the Huffington Post that there must be a “serious drawdown” next summer and that she was not sure how many Democrats will vote for war spending without enshrining such policy into law. “I don’t know how many votes there are in the caucus, even condition-based, for the war, hands down,” she said.

The last time General Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill, he told the House Armed Services Committee that he would not “make too much out of that” deadline because the president had not decided the pace of a withdrawal. Before the Senate committee, he endorsed the deadline, but paused when Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and the Armed Services Committee chairman, asked if it reflected his best military judgment.

“In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with deadlines,” General Petraeus said, adding that “we are assuming” conditions will permit it. When Mr. Levin asked if that was “a qualified yes,” General Petraeus agreed.

Mr. Levin said Monday that General Petraeus would be pressed again on Tuesday: “He needs to be again on record on that issue, and to say why he agrees with the policy, because particularly on the Republican side there are people who disagree with that.”

Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.

This article, "With command shift in Afghanistan, talk turns to withdrawal," first appeared in The New York Times.