With the end of combat in Operation Enduring Freedom presidentially certified, all eyes rivet toward Afghanistan. This is the fight President Obama, when campaigning for office, called our "war of necessity." This is the theater of conflict where Obama, when debating Sen. McCain barely two years ago, promised us victory ending with the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden. Ironically, Afghanistan may also be the only war in American history with a presidential expiration date.
In his recent book, "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," journalist and Obama hagiographer Jonathan Alter gives us unique insight into the setting of the July 2011 deadline for the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.
As Alter recounts the pivotal meeting, Defense Secretary Gates, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen and other Pentagon brass were convened at the White House to hear Commander in Chief Obama's decision on the Afghan War strategy. Vice President Joe Biden accompanied Obama to the meeting.
On their way to the conference room, Biden asked Obama whether the 18-month deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces was a target date or a firm promise. According to Alter, Obama not only responded that it was a promise, but the president subsequently went on to press General Petraeus to commit to finishing the job in Afghanistan within the 18-month deadline.
This revelation is significant because it confirms what many have suspected -- that the commander in chief's withdrawal deadline is political in nature. Having made opposition to the Iraq War a centerpiece of his campaign, Obama did not want a lingering war in Afghanistan to become his own political Achilles' heel. Political, not military, objectives dictated the president's decision to set the 18-month deadline in Afghanistan.
Leaders are entitled to, and indeed must, make political calculations during wartime. War leadership has always, and will forever, include politics. But these decisions should be strategic, not tactical. A strategic political calculation is one that advances the war effort.
The corollary of Clausewitz's quip that war is an extension of politics is that without political support, armies collapse.
Offensives may be launched or delayed based on political considerations. Such considerations are as old as the Republic. The toll on morale taken by the terrible winter at Valley Forge and eroding support in the Continental Congress were considerations in Gen. Washington's decision to risk a Christmas crossing of the Delaware River to attack Hessian mercenaries.
Washington needed a coup to shore up political support. Boosting revolutionary ardor kept the Revolution alive. In contrast, Czar Nicholas and Russia's ill-fated Romanov dynasty stand testament to the military consequences of political mismanagement.
So does the one-term presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Lacking a politically viable way to extricate the U.S., and his personal political fortunes, from Vietnam, Johnson instead pursued a doomed strategy of insufficient resources to achieve victory. While politically expedient in a tactical sense, Johnson's conduct of the war ultimately doomed both the war and his own presidency. Last November, with the Johnson presidency in mind, I penned "An Exit Strategy to Die For." In that column, I argued that we are better off bringing our troops home now than to ask them to risk their lives fighting for time until July 2011 rolls around and a politically expedient withdrawal commences.
Over the last year, events have persuaded me that this view remains correct. The coalition of the willing is winnowing as allies, convinced of the inevitably of a U.S. pullout, race us for the exits.
American casualties are now higher than in 2001. The chronically unstable Karzai government faces a fresh financial crisis, beseeching bailout-fatigued U.S. taxpayers to keep the Bank of Kabul solvent. Meanwhile the Taliban, burrowed into the towns and villages and biding their time in mountain fastnesses, patiently await the expiry date of Obama's necessary war.
Into this grim scenario, Petraeus has now made a play for Obama to reconsider the deadline. In a recent television interview, he said it is his duty to give the commander in chief his "best professional military advice" about whether July is too soon to remove troops. Separately, other policymakers have begun suggesting the July withdrawal may not be firm, injecting a hint of ambiguity into official statements. But in last week's Oval Office address, the president reconfirmed, precisely, that the withdrawal shall begin in July, as he ordered in his West Point policy announcement speech last year.
In the retirement speech of one of our greatest fighting generals, Gen. McChrystal -- whose self-inflicted career immolation still remains unexplained, but undoubtedly patriotically motivated -- we may have been given a first hint of his motivation when he observed: "Caution and cynicism are safe, but soldiers don't want to follow cautious cynics.
They follow leaders who believe enough to risk failure or disappointment for a worthy cause."
I repeat what I wrote last November: Bring the troops home. We'll need them later, God knows.