“This is a change in personnel,” President Obama said, announcing Gen. David Petraeus’ takeover of the Afghanistan war, “but not a change in policy.” Yes and no.
As I wrote earlier, Petraeus’ return to theater command indicates that an ambiguity in that policy has been clarified. It’s never been clear what exactly the pace and scope of troop withdrawals will be after Obama’s July 2011 date to begin the transition to Afghan soldiers and police taking the lead in securing the country. Obama said in his West Point speech announcing the date that “we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” But what does that really mean? It appeared like a straddle, a line that allowed Vice President Biden to say that troop withdrawals after 2011 would be substantial and also allowed the military not to face a hard and fast deadline. In Kabul and Islamabad, that didn’t work so well, as senior officials in the Afghan and Pakistani governments reportedly disbelieved that the U.S. really did seek a long-term relationship, as Obama repeatedly said.
Today Obama clarified what July 2011 means — somewhat. It means what Gen. Petraeus, his new commander, told the Senate he supports: not a “race for the exits,” but a “conditions-based,” open-ended transition. If that still sounds unclear, it’s because the policy itself is unclear. *But by placing Petraeus at the helm, it means that 2012 will probably look more like *right now, in terms of troop levels and U.S. troops fighting, than anything Biden prefers. That is, unless Petraeus and Obama come to a consensus that conditions on the ground necessitate more rapid withdrawals. Think of the deadline as getting deliberately blurrier. Tom Ricks called his last book about Petraeus “The Gamble.” It’s sequel time.
The strategy is supposed to undergo a review in December. Don’t expect that review to be so substantial. Petraeus will only be in theater for a few months. While he may not want to launch his own strategy review, he’ll surely want to keep his options open, and will be able to argue that the extraordinary conditions that put him back in charge of a war will necessitate that delay. Make no mistake: This is Obama intensifying his strategy. That’s the major change that has emerged after Gen. McChrystal’s unexpected self-immolation.