We've gotten used to thinking about the Afghanistan policy review as a December agenda item, but in point of fact, the review has already begun. Granted, it's at the level of staff to deputy assistant secretaries at various departments, but an American government policy review is not something that simply flashes into existence. It takes months and months of interagency preparation.
So perceptions about the war RIGHT NOW are going to influence the input of the review as much as perceptions about the war in December will influence the output. In early September, the chiefs of staff of the service components fighting in Afghanistan are supposed to give their recommendations to the National Security Council. There will be numerous deputy-level meetings in September, October, and November, as input begins to flow in from the State Department, NATO, the commanders of U.S. counterterrorism units, U.S. Central Command, and the International Security Assistance Force's flag and general officers themselves. The CIA and DIA will contribute assessments and projections.
In the Sunday New York Times, Peter Baker described what he called President Obama's "steep learning curve" as commander in chief, portraying his relationship with senior military and civilian officials as mostly cautious and correct. The Pentagon still does not seem to fully trust the instincts of the commander in chief; the commander in chief does not fully believe that his generals and admirals have his back. (The firing of McChrystal, as unpopular as it was within the general officer corps, may ironically have helped convince some of these officers that Obama had a spine.)
Baker concluded that Obama is a reluctant war president. Tomorrow's speech on Iraq is an attempt to define what sort of president he is -- a president who can end wars and bring troops home -- and to send an implicit message about Afghanistan. Based on recent conversations with senior Pentagon officials and officers, I would not be surprised if Gen. David Petraeus seeks to slow down the eventual American troop withdrawal as much as possible ... not because he wants to prolong the war for the sake of prolonging the war, but because he wants to win the war and believes that we need a few more years to do it.
What we've done in Iraq is what we're trying to do in Afghanistan -- turn a resource intensive counter-insurgency mission into a security assistance force (with a counterterrorism component). The question isn't whether we stay or go, it's how quickly we go -- and whether it is prudent to go, given the goal.
Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.