Obama’s Afghan Deadline: Is it Real?

US AfghanistanLast fall, a commenter at Dave Schuler’s Glittering Eye blog made an observation to the effect that Barack Obama’s progressive supporters were enthusiastic about him because they believed everything he said whereas the so-called Obamacons assumed he was lying on the matters with which they disagreed. (The original was pithier but, alas, I failed to find it.)

As I explain in great detail in my New Atlanticist piece, “Afghanistan Deadline: What Happens in July 2011?” the opposite is now happening with regard to the president’s promise to begin withdrawal in Afghanistan in eighteen months: “Opposition Republicans took the president at his word and warned about signaling weakness, whereas critics in his own party saw the deadline as a cynical gesture to buy time. ”

After days of the White House and SECDEF Gates seemingly contradicting each other, it’s still not clear who’s right.  Naturally, that doesn’t stop me from speculating:

So, what to make of all this?   Is the administration deliberately trying to sew doubt on the issue, consoling hawks that the deadline is just a planning tool while giving hope to doves that the end is in sight? Was it, as analyst Steve Hynd put it, “simply PR statements intended to soften public perceptions of an occupation without end. That is, they were lies”?

My view is somewhat more charitable than that.  I tend to agree with George Washington University’s Marc Lynch,

I haven’t heard anybody yet say that they believed that Obama would really start drawing down in June 2011, no matter what he says.  And yet the strategy depends upon that commitment being credible, because that is what is supposed to generate the urgency for local actors to change. I believe that Obama and his team really want things to work out this way, and have carefully thought through how to work it.   But when things don’t go their way, will they really follow through on their promises to draw down?   Few people believe that.  And if they don’t believe it, then the mechanism of pressure doesn’t operate.

Beyond that, I agree with my colleague, Harlan Ullman, that the speech and the deadline “bought some breathing room for the administration with an increasingly dubious public” and think that was the point.

What do you think?

AP Photo

FILED UNDER: National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Furhead says:

    An interesting question – are they intentionally making this ambiguous? For example, why announce the deadline in the speech rather than just telling Karzai privately?

    There’s many angles to this, as has been discussed before. The administration needs support to do anything, and much of its support obviously derives from liberal interests. And anything that’s public, the enemy knows.

    You might call it buying time, or walking a fine line, but you’re probably correct that this is very intentional.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I heard Chuck Todd say that the deadline was included to appease Biden, and then Biden was going to sell the surge to doves with it. The fact that Chuck Todd was telling me this on a non-secure line called MSNBC makes me wonder if this is all kabuki. Or do we have an out-of-control vice president for the first time?

  3. Andy says:

    I think this is all about domestic politics and the political box Obama got himself into. The box was created by his campaign rhetoric, by his March policy, by his choice of General (McChyrstal) and by the perception of success with Iraq’s “surge.” All these constrain his options. Here’s my theory:

    In short, my speculation on the President’s intent is to try to strategically replicate what’s happened in Iraq (think really BIG picture Iraq) since 2007.

    The “surge” in Iraq may provide a model to break out of Obama’s political box. We know the surge was a tactical victory that did not solve any of Iraq’s underlying social and political problems, but the tactical success did sort of do what was promised, which was provide strategic space. The Iraqi government didn’t use that space for “reconciliation,” but we put it to use by agreeing to a firm timetable for withdrawal and an exit from Iraq under comparatively good and honorable conditions to 2007. The tactical success of the “surge” also stymied any accusations from domestic political opposition or foreign enemies that the US withdrawal is the result of weakness, vacillation or “surrender.” The lesson is that timetables are OK when they don’t appear to be in response to a failing policy.

    Maybe President Obama is trying to create a similar effect in Afghanistan — to regain the initiative and create at least the perception of strength through transitory tactical and operational success in order to enable, politically, a real change of strategy or an orderly, honorable and politically beneficial withdrawal. He had to include a “sort-of” timetable to mollify his base, but he intends to make it an actual, politically viable timetable similar to what was done in Iraq.

    If it works, then it will be a pretty good policy – an honorable exit from Afghanistan that doesn’t appear to be from lack of will. It’s fraught with danger, however.

    BTW, here’s an article with a similar analysis.

  4. Wayne says:

    I think Obama is an indecisive decision maker. He caught heat about the deadline in his speech, so he change his mind and claim he meant something else. Now he is catching heat from the other side so he once again changes his mind or is plainly uncertain. He does this a great deal.

    I’m sure some of his supporters will claim it is great to have a President who is willing to reexamine stuff and willing to change his mind. That is fine once in a while but someone who does it consistently especially at an executive position is an incompetent and ineffective leader. A good leader knows that it is not a perfect world and at some point a decision has to be made and you go with it. Not doing so will create disastrous results.

  5. Wayne says:

    One more thing, it would be great if he could make the right decisions but he is constantly in campaign mode and doesn’t want to be pin down on anything.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I’m skeptical of the notion that the timetable was for the consumption of the Karzai government. If that had been the intention, we would have seen Obama be more critical of the Karzaii government, insist on progress on specific items, and commit to withdrawing or reducing U.S. commitments if he’s not satisfied with the progress.

    I think it was for domestic consumption, particularly with low information voters who want the same commitment asked for of the TV show Lost: just tell us there is an ending somewhere in this madness. We’ll either tune in or not.

  7. steve says:

    I am hoping that it was intended to place pressure on the Afghans, and not just Karzai. I also hope he follows through and starts pulling troops if they are not shaping up.


  8. An Interested Party says:

    I think Obama is an indecisive decision maker.

    Well yes, you would think that, wouldn’t you?

    A good leader knows that it is not a perfect world and at some point a decision has to be made and you go with it. Not doing so will create disastrous results.

    Why yes, of course…like Bush who knew that decisions had to be made and went with them…no disastrous results there…

  9. Franklin says:

    Wayne: I think Obama is an indecisive decision maker.

    AIP: Well yes, you would think that, wouldn’t you?

    Oh, quit being so snarky. Wayne is in fact very decisive. When he feels like insulting Obama, he doesn’t dither, he just DOES it, no questions asked. When he feels like he needs to make poopy, he doesn’t dance around, he just gets on his porcelain throne and shits. And when a general asks and receives troops from Wayne, and then another general suddenly asks for a ton more along with untold billions in support, well Wayne doesn’t sit around wondering if it is worth it, he just COMMITS to something he has absolutely no understanding of.

    Why can’t Obama be more like Wayne?

  10. Gerry W. says:

    One reason for an early pull out is the amount of tours, suicides, and divorces that is happening with the soldiers. And here is the article on that.


  11. anjin-san says:

    I think Obama is an indecisive decision maker.

    Jesus Wayne, stop whining. Of course now that the economy, which damn near collapsed under Bush, is recovering, with the dow over 10k and the Bush/Cheney job hemorrhage almost under control, you need something to bitch about.

    When Bush & Cheney left office, we were losing this war. Obama was dealt a terrible hand, and now he is trying to handle it as best he can. He may succeed, he mail fail. Why don’t you put “country first” and root for the former?

  12. sam says:


    I’m skeptical of the notion that the timetable was for the consumption of the Karzai government

    I’m more inclined to think it was for the benefit of the Pakinstani government. It seems to have freaked them out. And, as I keep tiresomely harping on, they’s got teh nukes over thea.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    sam, from what I had read the Pakistani government seemed upset that the surge would bring more Taliban into their territory. It seems like we need to know a few things and won’t: 1. How serious is the threat of al-qaeda entities getting nuclear materials? 2. What are the confidence levels of U.S. contingency plans for that event? 3. How much does the state of Afghanistan effect these risks?

  14. Wayne says:

    Re “like Bush who knew that decisions had to be made and went with them”

    So you think it would have been better if Bush never made a decision or constantly went back and forth with a decision? Will maybe we will attack Afghanistan, maybe not, maybe so, maybe not. Sign of a great leader. Right.

    I stated above that decisions should take some thought but they do need to be made. Not this back and forth B.S. or no decision at all.

    I must have hit a nerve with all these insults thrown at me. It makes me smile. What happen to the “expressing discontent for the President is the highest form of patriotism”? Some of you are still bashing Bush. Oh I know it is whining and unpatriotic if we do it to your guy but the opposite when you do it to ours.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Actually, it would have been better if Bush hadn’t made bad decisions…perhaps a little dithering on his part might have yielded better outcomes…keep smiling though…if you want to delude yourself into thinking you hit anyone’s nerve, who would any of us be to take that away from you…

  16. Gerry W. says:

    Well Wayne, Bush got his calling from God on going to Iraq, never had enough soldiers and never paid for the war. It was a quagmire and Afghanistan was neglected. It is very hard to put Humpty Dumpty together again with so much in blunders. The attack on us was by Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and after all these years, one trillion dollars and thousands of dead we have not achieve the goal in getting him.

  17. anjin-san says:

    I must have hit a nerve with all these insults thrown at me.

    Sho ‘nuf. You hit the “moronic right wing chatter is annoying” nerve.

    Some of you are still bashing Bush

    Pointing out his many failures is not “bashing”, it’s keeping the record straight.