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Washington Sketch: Obama's Afghan deadline all but missed

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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 3, 2009

President Obama's 18-month deadline for the Afghanistan surge didn't even survive 18 hours.

In his speech to the West Point cadets and the nation on Tuesday night, Obama said he planned, conditionally, "to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011" -- a gesture intended to assuage the antiwar left. But in questioning top administration officials Wednesday morning, it didn't take long for members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to learn that this withdrawal timeline was more of a fuzzy aspiration than a commitment.

First, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates offered this qualifier to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz): "Our current plan is that we will begin the transition in local areas in July of 2011. We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) shot more holes in the July 2011 deadline when he asked Gates whether the deadline "may not include immediately a withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan."

"That is correct," Gates said, adding that "we're not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away."

The 18-month deadline was all but done. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) delivered the coup de grace.

"Is it possible, in December 2010, to reach the conclusion it is not wise to withdraw anyone in July 2011?"

"The president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions," answered Gates.

"Admiral Mullen, is it your understanding that it's possible . . . not to begin to withdraw in 2011?"

"The president has choices," answered Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Have we locked ourselves into leaving, Secretary Clinton, in July 2011?"

"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton answered.

The initial analysis of Obama's Afghanistan surge portrayed it as a split-the-difference policy that gave something to both sides: 30,000 more troops for the hawks, and a withdrawal schedule for doves. But the testimony made clear that while the troop increase is solid, the pullout plans are vague and tentative. In that sense, Obama gave the Republican opposition substantially more than he gave the liberals in his own party. It was a style of pragmatic leadership, and a willingness to defy his political base, that his predecessor never displayed.

"In making this decision, President Obama has respectfully disagreed with a majority of members of his own political party, according to every public opinion poll I've seen," said Lieberman, whose own hawkishness caused his estrangement from the Democrats. "And therefore, I think it's fair to say that the president has quite literally put our national security interests ahead of partisan political interests. I hope that fact will inspire and encourage a majority of members of both political parties to do the same and to thereby show that America's political leadership is still capable of suspending partisanship at the water's edge when our security and our troops are on the line."

In Dirksen 106, a big Senate hearing room with wood panels and green marble, it was easy to tell the winners from the losers in Obama's new Afghanistan policy. First in line for the hearing was Medea Benjamin, a leader of the liberal antiwar group Code Pink. She had freshly printed posters showing the iconic Obama image from the 2008 campaign and, instead of the word "Hope" underneath it, the words "Hopeless Escalation." The poster complained: "This is not the hope you voted for!"

"We voted for peace and we got war," said Benjamin, who then employed her heckling skills, used for years against Bush officials, against the Obama officials in the room. "Hillary, you know better! War is not the answer!" she shouted at the secretary of state. "Stop the war! It's senseless!" she hollered at Gates. "Admiral, could you end these wars so we could go home, please?" she called out to Mullen.

Mullen ignored her and struck up small talk with Geoff Morrell, Gates's spokesman, about Obama's speech: "It was a good setting. . . . He did a really nice job. . . . It was terrific." The nation's top war fighter then took his seat at the witness table, where he gave a whole-hearted endorsement of Obama's surge. "I support fully and without hesitation the president's decision," he testified.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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