“The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline, than what we had recommended,” Petraeus told the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing on his nomination to head the CIA. “That is understandable in the sense that there are broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander.”
In the weeks leading up to his decision, Obama faced growing calls from Congress to swiftly draw down U.S. forces and narrow the mission to focus on destroying al-Qaeda, abandoning some of the expensive nation-building tasks that are part of the counterinsurgency strategy championed by Petraeus.
Lawmakers have offered a mixed reaction to Obama’s decision. Some have criticized the drawdown as too precipitous a withdrawal given the fragility of recent successes, while others have said it is too slow given the mounting domestic demands that are being neglected as a result of the $10 billion-a-month war effort.
But Mullen and Petraeus said that Obama effectively assessed the ramifications of withdrawing forces at the pace he chose and that the military would be able to carry out its mission effectively. The drawdown will leave 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of next summer, still a larger force than when Obama took office.
“The fact is that there’s never been a military commander in history who has had all the forces that he would like to have, for all the time, with all the money, all the authorities, and nowadays with all the bandwidth as well,” Petraeus said.
His comments echoed Mullen’s testimony earlier in the day before the House Armed Services Committee. Together the military leaders managed to blunt criticism, especially from some Republican lawmakers, that Obama’s decision was driven more by political considerations than strategic ones.
At the end of 2009, Obama ordered an additional 33,000 troop to Afghanistan after a months-long strategy review designed to change the downward trajectory of the war. His schedule to bring those troops home will conclude two months before voters decide whether to elect him to a second term. After nearly a decade, a majority of the country no longer believes the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting.
Petraeus, who helped design the 2009 troop surge, told the Senate committee Thursday that “there is always a process of assessing risk, and it’s typically, in a case like this, as the chairman [Mullen] put it today, risk at the margin.”