Perhaps the biggest question hovering over Afghanistan policy in the Obama era has been: what will the promised July 2011 withdrawal look like?
It's become clear that the withdrawal will not be precipitous, as the president has more or less confirmed by reiterating that July 2011 will mark the "beginning" of the drawdown, but the pace is still up for debate.
Today, Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Afghanistan after Gen. Stanley McChrystal's abrupt departure, discusses his thinking on the matter in an interview with Spencer Ackerman for Wired's Danger Room. The strategy, at this point (which Petraeus himself describes as "premature" for in-depth discussion), appears to involve "thin[ning] out" troops in certain areas and reallocating them to other regions where U.S./NATO/Afghan control is weaker:
"You can reduce your forces. But you thin out," Petraeus tells Danger Room in an interview from his professorial Kabul office. "You don't just hand over. The whole unit doesn't leave." At least not in the early stages after the Obama administration's announced date to start a withdrawal. And some of those troops won't come home right away: they'll be "reinvested" at first in parts of the country where security remains dicey.
Petraeus says he will base decisions on the recommendations of military commanders stationed in regions of Afghanistan, who will have a better handle on local situations. If things stay the way they are, it seems more troops, not fewer, are needed to wrest control of large swaths of Afghanistan from the Taliban.
Some questions remain, including: can a slow withdrawal survive the realities of domestic politics in the U.S.?
Opposition to the war in Afghanistan has reached an all-time high, according to a CNN poll released this week, with 62% opposing it and 37% supporting it. It's a majority that spans party politics, as 65% of Republicans oppose the war. A total of 66% say the U.S. is not winning the war, but respondents are split evenly at 49% on whether the U.S. can win.
Americans are tired of the two wars America is fighting, and a desire to end them has overtaken a desire to establish a functioning, non-corrupt Afghan security force that can provide rule of law and an alternative to the Taliban.
There will be plenty of pressure on Obama to withdraw troops faster. Liberals have been criticizing his Afghanistan strategy since its announcement, and some voices within the administration, most notably Vice President Joe Biden, have advocated a reduced scope of the Afghan mission since before the strategy was decided upon.
July 2011 will come a year and a half before the next presidential election. The steady rumble of the GOP candidates will be growing as they look toward the true beginning of their campaigns Iowa and New Hampshire in late fall. During his roughly year-long reelection campaign, Obama will need to solidify his base and energize liberals.
A likely scenario for the summer of 2011 seems to be a White House pulled in opposite directions by the demands of the American public and the recommendations of Gen. Petraeus, with Obama stuck in the unenviable middle.