The White House is clinging to President Obama’s ill-conceived pledge to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, regardless of how the war is going at the time. In dogmatically standing by that pledge, Mr. Obama is virtually guaranteeing he will preside over America’s second lost war.
The issue arose last week during congressional testimony when Central Command commander Gen. David H. Petraeus said that withdrawing from Afghanistan would be “based on conditions” and that “July 2011 is not the date where we race for the exits.” Au contraire, according to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. “The July  date, as stated by the president, that’s not moving, that’s not changing,” he said Sunday. “Everybody agreed on that date.”
The scope of the withdrawal is yet to be decided, but according to Mr. Emanuel, the start date is necessary because it has “created a sense of urgency” among the allies to get the job done. Another thing creating a sense of urgency is the significantly degraded security situation in Afghanistan since Mr. Obama set this deadline. Insurgent attacks and coalition casualties are up; the areas of the country in which the Taliban are active have increased; and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is watching the United States with increasing wariness, knowing that soon he will have to face the Taliban alone.
A recent study by Anthony H. Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies delves into the problems presented by this arbitrary “begin the withdrawal” date. The study advises against “timelines based on national politics, exaggerated expectations, and past failures [which] can lose the war before it can be won.” Setting unrealistic timelines will pressure the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into “trying to do too much, too quickly,” “undermine faith in the U.S. and ISAF commitment to stay in Afghanistan,” “embolden insurgents in their war of political attrition” and “pressure Afghans and others in the region to hedge against U.S. departure and compromise with insurgents.”
Attempts to get results before the deadline will lead to wasting Afghan troops by throwing them into the fight unprepared and generating a climate of risk aversion elsewhere in the government because no one will want to stick his neck out if America is going to abandon them. Meanwhile, Pakistan will begin to weigh its options for the post-U.S. regional environment, and Iran will be more active in expanding its influence.
The report notes that “President Obama’s efforts to cap the size of the U.S. military effort have been broadly misinterpreted as a sign the U.S. plans to start major withdrawals after mid-2011.” But according to Mr. Emanuel, this is not a misinterpretation but a method, a way of fomenting panic instead of counseling patience. Some critics have said that setting a withdrawal start date will enable the enemy simply to wait out the United States, but rather than sitting back, the enemy is pouring it on. The worse conditions in Afghanistan get, the more the arbitrary withdrawal start date looks like retreat in the face of a superior enemy, like cutting and running.
The proper time to leave Afghanistan is when the United States has achieved its strategic goals. Maybe this will have happened by July 2011, or maybe not. But it is an abrogation of leadership to cling to an arbitrary date regardless of the facts on the ground. Mr. Obama should spend more time listening to his generals telling him how to win wars and pay less attention to ideological functionaries advising him on the most politically expedient ways to lose one.