Mixed messages from Obama, Petraeus on Afghanistan pullout

President Obama has called for an Afghanistan exit strategy with no 'wiggle room' and a July 2011 troop withdrawal. General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has been less firm on the date.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama and Gen. David Petraeus appeared together at a White House press conference June 23 when it was announced that Petraeus would be taking over command of US forces in Afghanistan.

Even as new disclosures reveal that President Obama was leaning hard on the Pentagon to come up with an exit strategy for Afghanistan with no “wiggle room,” US troops on the ground are increasingly seeking out just that.

As they make their case, soldiers tend to point to the directives of their commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, rather than their commander-in-chief, on the topic of a July, 2011 deadline that the President set earlier this year for beginning the pullout of US troops from the country.

This deadline was one that, according to investigative reporter Bob Woodward’s new book, the president felt compelled to put in place in a classified six-page “terms sheet” – the result of his reported growing frustration at being boxed in by the Pentagon’s push for more US troops in Afghanistan. It came, too, on the heels of Vice President Joe Biden’s warnings that a large escalation would mean America would be “locked into Vietnam.”

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling his aides. “It’s in our national interest. There can’t be any wiggle room.”

Ultimately, the president agreed to send a surge of 30,000 more US troops to the country – troops that are all in place as of this month – contingent on a plan to begin pulling some of them out in July, 2011. These troop levels fell short of the upwards of 40,000 more troops for which many senior officials in the Pentagon were lobbying.

But on the ground in Afghanistan today, US troops seem to be largely dismissing the July, 2011 withdrawal date, pointing, as they make their case, to their commander in Afghanistan. “What General Petraeus stated – and I agree with him – is that July, 2011 is not the start of withdrawal; it’s the start of talking about transition,” Col. Sean Mulholland, deputy commander of forces in northern Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters in a briefing Tuesday.

“I don’t see US troops drawing down anywhere in Afghanistan until General Petraeus gives us the order.”

For his part, Petraeus has noted on more than one occasion in Congressional testimony that though he understands the president’s desire to set a withdrawal date, it was not his idea.

“Was there a recommendation from you or anyone in the military that we set a date of July, 2011?” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in June.

“There was not,” Petraeus said. Senator McCain continued, “There was not – by any military person that you know of?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Petraeus answered.

This exchange was remarkably similar to a back-and-forth between Petraeus and McCain in congressional testimony earlier this month.

Gen. Petraeus also seemed to highlight the political nature of the decision. “The president has to be interested in fiscal considerations, political considerations, diplomatic considerations,” Petraeus noted at the June hearing, appearing to emphasize that he was more good soldier than avid supporter of the plan. “I don’t find it unusual to have, again, something inserted that was not from the bottom up.”

President Obama has seemed to bow to growing pressure from his military advisors and GOP critics who contend that a firm withdrawal date emboldens America’s enemies in Afghanistan. "We did not say starting in July 2011 suddenly there will be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan," Obama said in a June 24 press conference. “We said we'd begin a transition phase that would allow the Afghan government to take more and more responsibility."

NATO Secretary General has recently begun speaking about a “transition dividend” in which troops may not be send home, but simply moved to more hostile locations within Afghanistan.

Petraeus, for his part, said in his June testimony that though he agrees with July, 2011 as a date in which to begin assessing the transition, US troops will be needed in Afghanistan for “quite some time.”

Back in Afghanistan, US troops are taking the cue. “No one said that we are withdrawing in July 2011,” Col. Mulholland told reporters. “I stated that there won’t be any withdrawal in July 2011 – that General Petraeus has stated that that is the mark to start talking and planning about transition. So there is no – not going to be a withdrawal in July 2011.”

In response to perplexed Pentagon reporters who pointed out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that there would be withdrawal of some American troops by July, 2011, Mulholland remained firm.

“What Secretary Gates said I can’t comment on. All I know is what our commander said… and I think in General Petraeus’ mind it’s – July, 2011 is a mark to start planning about withdrawal,” Mulholland said. “It doesn’t mean that troops will start moving in July, 2011. That’s how I read it.”

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