As the White House is gearing up for a major debate on the future of American military involvement in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported this week that the military is pushing back “against the prospect of a substantial withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And the Washington Post reported last week that Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez issued caution on withdrawal:
Adm. Mike Mullen warned that while no one knows yet how deep the initial cut will be, it must not erode the gains troops have made.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, said there should not be a drawdown so rapid that it outpaces the abilities of Afghan soldiers and police to handle security.
If that happens, the Taliban could regain a foothold, Rodriguez said.
But Gates, Mullen, and other military leaders were telling President Obama something different when he made the decision in November 2009 to send a “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of his wider counterinsurgency strategy and begin withdrawing them in July 2011.
Journalist Jonathan Alter reported last year that Obama told Vice President Biden that “the new policy of beginning a significant withdrawal in 2011 was a direct presidential order that couldn’t be countermanded by the military.” And the president reportedly met with the top military officials, including Gates, Mullen, and Gen. David Petraeus, to reiterate that policy and all agreed that they could get the job done in 18 months:
Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”
“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.
“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”
“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.
“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.
Alter reported that Obama then turned directly to Gates. “Bob, you have any problems?” Obama asked, to which Alter reported that Gates “said he was fine with it.” Obama then reiterated his policy — “in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army” — and said to Mullen and Petraeus, “If you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now.” “Fully support, sir,” Mullen said. “Ditto,” Petraeus said.