Here’s a point that might have gotten lost in the shuffle yesterday during coverage of the marathon Afghanistan testimony from Secretaries Clinton and Gates and Adm. Mullen. The biggest inflection point in President Obama’s West Point speech was the line where he expressed what U.S. and allied troops, broadly speaking, will be doing during Phase One of the strategy: “We will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.”
I considered that important enough to use it as my marquee quote. In other words, during that period, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan becomes one of diminishing insurgent capacity while strengthening Afghan capacity, instantiated in a variety of ways. The Obama administration believes that will require a U.S. troop presence of around 100,000 for the mission. Eighteen months, the president said.
A**fter that period, the mission pivots. It doesn’t change, and it definitely doesn’t change overnight, but it pivots: Afghan capacity is supposed to be improved relative to the insurgency’s so that, in a graduated fashion, the Afghans begin to take the lead for Afghan security. That begins in July 2011.
Unless it doesn’t. While President Obama stressed eighteen months as the span of Phase One, Gates and Mullen had a different perspective: they said *18 to 24 months *would be the time span to “turn this insurgency around,” in Mullen’s phrase. Then, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued, “that will in turn provide an opportunity to get at the kind of transition, in terms of security responsibility and thinning of our forces, if you will, to start that.”
To be very clear: Gates, Mullen and Clinton all endorsed, embraced and defended the July 2011 timetable. And the flexibility Obama outlined at West Point that the strategy contains is commensurate with an assessment that the U.S.-led momentum-breaking phase of the campaign can and probably will last beyond July 2011. But it’s significant that the Pentagon leaders added the caveat that the “extended surge” of 30,000 troops could well last for two years. No one should expect significant U.S. withdrawals of troops in July 2011, or even shortly thereafter.
There’s another round of testimony this morning with the three officials in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, followed by yet another in the House Armed Services Committee this afternoon. Let’s see if Gates, Clinton or Mullen clarifies the timeline any further.