Artifical Timelines Unacceptable in Libya, Fine for Afghanistan?

Posted: May 31, 2011 11:38 AM

During a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London last week, President Obama told reporters that he believes Qaddafi will eventually step down if NATO continues to apply pressure in Libya: “I believe we have built enough momentum that if we sustain the course we're on, he is going to step down. We have not put an artificial timeline on how long this is going to take... Ultimately, this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we’re able to wear down the regime forces.”


President Obama chose to take action in Libya because of humanitarian concerns and is hoping to see the Libyans make a successful bid for self-determination, according to his stated goals for the intervention. Nevertheless, the United States does not have a vital security interest in Libya, and since it appears that the President recognizes the wisdom in not applying arbitrary deadlines to complex wars, it seems counterintuitive that we would place “artificial timelines” upon the war in Afghanistan, in which the U.S. definitely does have vested security interests. Afghanistan has long been a base for terrorism, and if the U.S. withdraws troops en masse before the region is stabilized, terrorists could easily regroup. The military has begun the process of transitioning control to Afghan security forces, but advertising to the enemy that you are going to remove forces based upon an arbitrary timeline instead of conditions on-the-ground is poor military strategy.


Last week, anti-war House Democrats banded together to endorse an amendment demanding that Obama produce plans to accelerate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The amendment, which was attached to the annual defense authorization bill and sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), did not elicit any concrete dates but pressured Obama to produce a definite withdrawal schedule. While the vote failed, 215-204, there were 26 Republicans who also voted yea.


As crafted by McGovern and his chief co-sponsor, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), the amendment asked for three separate reports:


-Within 60 days, a plan for accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces.
-Within 60 days, a plan to pursue accelerated talks with the Kabul government, Taliban and Pakistan toward “reconciliation of the internal conflict in Afghanistan.”
-Within 90 days, a new national intelligence estimate from the administration on the leadership, locations and capabilities of Al Qaeda and its affiliated networks after bin Laden's death.


Given the absence of any fixed withdrawal target, the White House dismissed the House vote as a non-factor for the president, who is already committed to begin some drawdown of forces July 1. Indeed, when the House Appropriations Committee unveils its $530 billion Pentagon budget bill Tuesday, it’s expected to include an additional $118.7 billion in contingency funds, chiefly for the war in Afghanistan as well as counterinsurgency aid for Pakistan.


“The vote does not add pressure,” said a senior administration official. “After nearly 10 years of remarkable effort by our troops and investments by our taxpayers, we know there is eagerness to see concrete progress. We have made progress,” he said — referring to the killing of bin Laden. “But the president has and will continue to demand more as we continue this important year of transition.”


In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) expressed his own reservations. The U.S. is making genuine progress on the ground militarily, he told POLITICO, and to show any sign of pulling back at this stage, he argued, would be ill-timed.


While it seems that the President is not going to completely cave to the House Democrats’ pressure, the reality is that any sort of fixed agenda based upon politics and emotions, like the July 1st drawdown, is poor commanding-in-chief and could dismantle much of the progress we have made in the region. If the President can afford to take a bold stance on Libya, he should definitely do so for the more crucial war in Afghanistan.