Paul Pillar

What Conditions, Exactly?

In his interview on Meet the Press, General David Petraeus displayed the form we have come to expect from this most politically astute and admired of American military leaders.  He comfortably voiced rationales for the war in Afghanistan, going beyond his area of responsibility as field commander but without stepping on any policymakers' toes.  He talked down expectations about what can be achieved in Afghanistan while talking up progress he says is being achieved.  He simultaneously exuded both understanding of the doubts back home concerning the war and a sense of confidence in his own mission.

Regarding the scheduled beginning in eleven months of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Petraeus mentioned the same formula that administration policymakers have mentioned countless other times: that decisions about the pace of withdrawal would be determined by "conditions" on the ground in Afghanistan.  Interviewer David Gregory did not ask a badly needed follow-up: What exactly does that mean?  What sort of conditions would lead to a faster withdrawal, and what sort to a slower one?

Petraeus and the administration have laid the rhetorical groundwork for deciding on a slow, maybe even token, withdrawal regardless of the conditions in Afghanistan next July.  If the war is going well, then the argument will be: the strategy is working, let's give the counterinsurgency the time we've always known it requires, and let's not sacrifice all that we've accomplished by pulling out too fast.  If the war is going badly, then the argument will be: the Afghan security forces clearly are not yet up to the task, and the situation still requires a major role for U.S. forces.  About the only imaginable scenario that could lead to a faster withdrawal is one that is so rosy--beyond even the most optimistic visions of counterinsurgency officers, with a precipitous decline in violence and much faster increase in the proficiency of Afghan security forces than they have displayed to date--that it is effectively impossible.  So we have, with arguments for continuing the counterinsurgency, what social scientists would call an irrefutable proposition.  Talk of testing the proposition against empirical data--in this case in the form of "conditions"--is effectively meaningless.

Petraeus's comments pointed strongly to a withdrawal that will be slow and small.  He cited more than once Vice President Biden's remark last month about how a withdrawal might involve only a "couple of thousand" troops, and he said he does not find "stifling" the July 2011 date to start a withdrawal.

The exact pace of the withdrawal will be determined more by political conditions in Washington than by security conditions in Afghanistan.  The administration will set the pace according to trends in public opinion about the war, how the war seems to be shaping up as an issue in the next presidential election campaign, and how the president needs to juggle discontent among Democrats against exploitation of the issue by Republicans.  It will be a continuation of the political balancing act that already has combined a troop surge with a promised start-the-withdrawal date that makes no sense in terms of what counterinsurgency experts like General Petraeus would tell us is the time required.   In Petraeus, the president has a highly respected commander who can be part of a process that makes it look like the decisions really do depend more on "conditions" in Afghanistan.  In the interview, the general said that he will give the president his best professional military advice, but--the most telling part of his comment--that his advice will be "informed" by his awareness of the political situation and discourse about the war back home.

Meanwhile, the adept Petraeus can be trusted to turn aside skillfully the most difficult questions about why the war continues to be prosecuted at all.  One of Gregory's better questions was: Would a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan mean a return as well of Al Qaeda?  Petraeus responded with a comment about possible reconciliation with the Taliban and the sticky issues that would pose.  His comment made sense as far as it went, but it was completely unresponsive to the question of a return of Al Qaeda, including whether it would return if the Taliban retook power not through a reconciliation process but forcefully, after a U.S. pullout.  There are good reasons to expect that this would not result in the much-feared, much-cited, re-establishment of an Al Qaeda haven in Afghanistan--viz., that the Taliban do not share the transnational terrorist objectives of Al Qaeda, that the biggest setback the Taliban ever suffered was a direct result of an Al Qaeda terrorist operation, that both the Taliban and Al Qaeda know what U.S. air power would do in response to any attempt by Al Qaeda to re-establish its former presence, and that for all these reasons going back to Afghanistan would offer little or no advantage to Al Qaeda beyond what the group already has in Pakistan.  Petraeus's non-response was smooth enough that few in the audience would have been led to such thoughts.