“It’s ‘open the envelope time,’ ” Gen. David Petraeus told his security team as his SUV approached the White House on June 21, 2011, for his final meeting with President Obama on the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan. Petraeus had returned to Washington from his command in Kabul for consultations with Obama on the drawdown, and for a Senate committee hearing on his nomination to become the next director of the CIA. On the way from the Pentagon, retired Army general Jack Keane, a mentor and former vice chief of staff of the Army, e-mailed Petraeus with rumors of what he was hearing: The White House was going to recommend 10,000 troops depart by the end of 2011, with the remaining 23,000 surge forces out by the summer of 2012, a far more drastic timetable for withdrawal than Petraeus had recommended.
Keane was protective of his prodigy. Obama’s decision “not only protracts the war but risks the mission,” Keane said in the e-mail, then asked: “should you consider resigning?”
“I don’t think quitting would serve our country,” Petraeus responded. “More likely to create a crisis. And, I told POTUS I’d support his ultimate decision. Besides, the troops can’t quit. . . .”
During a review of Afghan policy in the fall of 2009, Obama’s senior advisers had come to see Petraeus as an inflexible commander who only wanted as many troops as possible. They had suspicions that he was a Bush general, given his close personal relationship with the former president. Petraeus had worked hard since then to win Obama’s trust. He did not want to make the president feel he was trying to limit his drawdown options. Quitting was out of the question. But being candid about the drawdown, he thought, was a matter of duty.
Petraeus refused to discuss his interactions with the president for this account, but officials briefed on the White House meeting confirmed that Obama, Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior national security officials engaged in a lengthy debate, tense but respectful, over the pace of the drawdown.
Obama expressed his gratitude that there had been no leaks and said the frank exchanges during the group’s two prior meetings had been a great help to him. The president believed that Petraeus and the international coalition he commanded had made gains that justiﬁed his commitment of extra forces, but that now it was important to signal to the American, Afghan and international communities that the coming year would be one of transition.
There was general agreement with Obama’s desire to draw down 10,000 troops by the end of 2011, though that was a larger ﬁgure than Petraeus and the military had recommended. But there was sharp disagreement over when the remaining 23,000 surge troops should leave Afghanistan. Petraeus had recommended that they stay in Afghanistan through November 2012, which marked the end of the annual fighting season.