Fighting insurgents takes time
Counterinsurgency is a marathon, but President Obama wants to sprint. The most troubling aspect of Mr. Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan is the cramped timeline for his surge. He wants a quick in and out. The 30,000 new troops he is sending as reinforcements will be rushed into theater in the spring of 2010, and the drawdown will commence in July 2011. The message to Afghans is that this president lacks the will to sustain the fight.
Mr. Obama has not had good experiences setting deadlines. He made a highprofile promise to close the detention fa- cility at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010, which will not happen. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he promised that U.S. forces would be removed from Iraq by the end of spring 2010, but as president he pledged, “by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end,” with 30,000-50,000 troops still remaining in the country — about the same force the United States currently has in Afghanistan.
The July 2011 date has a whiff of politics about it. It gives the president time to mend fences with his antiwar base before the 2012 election. We recall the 1995 deployment of U.S. peacekeep- ers to Bosnia to enforce the Dayton Peace accord, and the Clinton administration’s promise that the troops would be home by December 1996. The promise held until Mr. Clinton was safely reelected. The Bosnia mission continued until 2004.
The exit strategy is “conditionsbased,” meaning there is ample room for revisions should things not work out as hoped. But if the job is not finished in 2011, the president will either have to stay the course and extend his timeline, thus energizing his antiwar critics, or commence a withdrawal that could turn into a rout. By setting a deadline, Mr. Obama established conditions for a potential no-win situation, which is both bad politics and poor war leadership.
The Taliban already have mocked the withdrawal deadline as irrelevant and politically motivated. Leftist activist filmmaker Michael Moore, who is critical of the president’s strategy and believes the United States has no business in Afghanistan, denounced the principle of setting deadlines in war. “If they’re the enemy,” he told CNN’s Larry King, “you fight them until they’re done — until you win and they lose.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.