Obama is responding to the widespread desire - particularly amongst his base - for a withdrawal of troops. In the days immediately following Obama's West Point speech - with support likely to be at its highest, before the body bags start, there were still 26% who thought that the troops should be withdrawn sooner than 2011. A plurality want the troops withdrawn by 2011. Still, even with his immense personal authority, Obama's war plan only has the support of a bare majority - 51%. Prior to the invasion by President Bush in 2001, 83% of the US population supported going to war. As of March of this year, a full 42% thought that invading Afghanistan had been a mistake (in Nov. 2001, only 9% thought it a mistake). As of September, a majority, 56%, of Democrats thought that troops should be removed immediately. This massive decline is the result of the combination of mass mobilizations - particularly in the lead up to the war in Iraq, which saw up to 20 million protest in countries around the world on February 15, 2003 - and the grinding down effects of the insurgency, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both these processes have shifted consciousness inexorably. Obama has not bought himself very much time.
But if this is a crumb to the mass anti-war sentiment, the real plan is based upon the ability of the surge to weaken the Taliban to the point of forcing them to negotiate on the USA's terms. The fact that Obama used the words "Al Qaeda" almost twice as often as "Taliban" is an indication of this shift in strategic focus. Up till now the USA has strongly resisted talking to the Taliban leadership. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has openly expressed frustration with this intransigence, blaming the US for the failure of negotiations. Now, of Obama's stated three goals - pushing back the Taliban's gains, strengthening Karzai's administration and military, crushing Al Qaeda in Pakistan - the first two are about establishing the best negotiating position for the future. The US government doesn't want to leave Afghanistan without it at least looking like they got what they wanted. As Nixon once described it in relation to Vietnam, they want "peace with honour."
But 18 months is a very short period of time to build the Afghan military and police to the point that they can take on the Taliban - when the US recently moved out of Nuristan province, it collapsed in days. They have been there for 8 years and have failed to build up a reliable indigenous fighting force. The same can be said for pushing back the Taliban, who have had 8 years to rebuild their strength and support and who now control almost the entire countryside outside of the cities. They are now deeply rooted and will be difficult to remove. For those two reasons alone the deadline looks highly unlikely. That it is a sop for domestic consumption has also become clear very quickly as Administration officials have appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to defend the plan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for instance, referred to Obama's withdrawal date as the "beginning of a process, an inflection point if you will, of transition for Afghan forces as they begin to assume greater responsibility for security." An "inflection point"? These are weasel words to say that the date means nothing. The Secretary of State seconded Gates' commitment to nothing in particular:
Mrs. Clinton said the “best information available at the moment” pointed to July 2011 as the pivotal moment. But she said that the withdrawal of troops would go on “probably for the foreseeable future,” as would requests for “continuing logistical support for the Afghan security force.”Obama's plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan is certain to do one thing: destabilize Pakistan further as they increase drone attacks inside that country and likely push Afghan insurgents across the porous border. In addition, the pressure on the Pakistani regime is guaranteeing greater power for the Pakistani military, which has a habit of overthrowing civilian governments. This is a much greater danger than the possibility of tribal militias in the North-West Frontier Provinces overthrowing the Pakistani government.
The likelihood of the present surge sorting out all of these factors on an 18-month timeline is more than extremely unlikely, it is a lie to dampen domestic opposition. It will be important to re-mobilize the anti-war movement in the US to push for an end to the war in Afghanistan or July, 2011 will be just another day of the year when people die in an endless war in Afghanistan's killing fields.