Gen. Petraeus's pregnant pause on Afghanistan

Gen. David Petraeus’s momentary faint got all the attention at the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. But before the faint came the pause -- a hesitation by the general in answering a question that spoke volumes about the Obama administration’s troubles in Afghanistan.The moment came when Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, asked Petraeus about the July 2011 date President Obama set last December for beginning U.S. troop withdrawals. “When you say that you continue to support the president’s policy both in terms of the additional troops but also the setting of that date to begin the reduction,” Levin pressed, “... does that represent your best personal professional judgment?”

The silence in the chamber was ringing as Petraeus hesitated. Probably something between five and 10 seconds passed, but it seemed much longer. At last, the four-star chief of Central Command spoke: “In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines.”

Petraeus went on to describe how he had managed U.S. troop withdrawals during the surge in Iraq. He reiterated that he supports “the policy of the president.” But, he added, “There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply a race for the exits.”

Implicit in those comments was a recognition of the problem that hashaunted the U.S. mission ever since Obama laid out his strategy -- and that continues to divide his military and civilian aides. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) bluntly described the trouble at the hearing, saying the deadline is “convincing the key actors inside and outside of Afghanistan that the United States is more interested in leaving than succeeding in this conflict. And as a result, they’re all making the necessary accommodations for a post-American Afghanistan.”

That seems to be true of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been moving toward negotiations with the Taliban despite the reservations of U.S. commanders, and who last week fired two of the three members of his cabinet who have been closest to the United States. McCain cited aninterview that one of those dismissed, intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, gave last week to the New York Times, in which he suggested, as the senator put it, “that President Karzai no longer believes the United States will succeed and that he is shifting, as a result, to a policy of accommodation with the Taliban and the Pakistani military.”

Before he briefly took ill and the hearing was suspended, Petraeus said he disagreed with that description of Karzai. But McCain also drew a telling contrast between Petraeus’s account of the July 2011 withdrawal date and that of Vice President Biden, who is known to be the leader in the White House of a faction opposed to the counterinsurgency strategy Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, are trying to implement.

Petraeus, quoting Obama’s December speech at West Point, said, “what happens in July 2011 is a beginning of a process for transition that is conditions-based, and the beginning of a ... responsible drawdown of U.S. forces.”

McCain then read Biden’s version, as quoted by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter in a recently released book: “In July of 2011, you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out,” the vice president told Alter. “Bet on it.”

That sounds a lot like a un-nuanced race for the exits. It also sounds like the version that Karzai has internalized, judging by his recent actions. Hence the general’s long pause.

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