That Elusive Withdrawal Date

The head of NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan thinks the alliance needs at least a year to get enough soldiers and police officers ready to take over for U.S. troops in the country. Troops are supposed to start withdrawing in July of next year, but Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell said in a Pentagon briefing yesterday that Afghanistan’s force numbers won’t be high enough for a pullout until October 2011, and even then he wouldn’t give any strict timetables. NATO has currently trained 134,000 soldiers and 115,500 policemen, just 56,000 short of the overall goal. But apparently desertion and injury rates among Afghans are running so high that an additional 141,000 people will have to be trained in order to make sure Afghan forces will be strong enough come next year. Last month’s police-force attrition rate was 47 percent. True, that’s down from last year’s 70 percent, but still not such a great sign. “In small isolated pockets” Afghan forces might be able to “have the lead with the coalition,” Caldwell noted, “But to say that they’ll be able to do much more before October of next year would be stretching it.” This stands in contrast to the stress many administration officials have put on the June 2011 withdrawal date, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates's statement in June that Afghan forces might be able to take the reins in some areas by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden reminded everyone that they shouldn’t “buy into ‘we have failed in Afghanistan.’” Speaking to veterans yesterday, he said that July 2011 would just be the start of a gradual withdrawal, just as General David Petraeus’s takeover is a new start “after two years of neglect”: “We now are only beginning with the right general and the right number of forces to seek our objectives.”

On the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban had some harsh words for Petraeus. Spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi issued a statement today countering Petraeus’s comment earlier in the week that Taliban progress has been reversed in Helmand and Kandahar provinces: “A day doesn't pass by but that the invaders and their stooges face immense losses in Logar, Kapisa, Maidan Wardak and Laghman.”

U.S. News has some new presidential popularity ratings. President Obama is still hanging on by a thread but he’s dropping in the polls. When survey respondents were asked who they would pick as president if the 2008 election was rerun today, Obama came out on top with 38 percent; Senator John McCain was in second with 24 percent. Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rumored to be Obama’s preferred choice for vice president in 2012, came in third (after Mitt Romney) with 21 percent, and current Vice President Biden came in at the bottom with 1 percent.