After watching Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton on Meet The Press on Sunday, and parsing the words of Obama's own speech at West Point, it unfortunately seems that the answer is "yes".
Obama was faced with a political dilemma. He had decided to give the Generals most of what they wanted by escalating to over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. But he faced a country at home divided down the middle on the War with a majority of his own supporters opposing escalation. So to quiet critics, he threw them a bone. He would escalate the War. But he made it appear to War skeptics that the escalation would only last 18 months. This would hopefully be enough to quiet the critics, and marginalize those who wouldn't be quiet.
Even on its face, however, a policy of escalating and simultaneously setting a deadline to begin withdrawal is nonsensical. In his West Point speech, President Obama declared that sending additional troops to Afghanistan is "in our vital national interests". If that's so, the logical conclusion is that we should send as many troops as it takes, and keep them there as long as it takes, to defeat the Taliban.
President Obama proclaimed that "We will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months." From Obama's lips, to God's ears, as they say.
But what happens in 18 months if, as is equally likely, the Taliban's momentum is not broken and the capacity of the Afghan government, army and police force is not substantially increased? Will the stability of Afghanistan suddenly no longer be "in our vital national interest" so Obama will start to substantially withdraw American troops anyway? To do so would, by Obama's own logic, be an abandonment of America's "vital national interest". Having committed over 100,000 American troops to the war effort (and by then having suffered several thousand casualties), Obama will have little choice but to maintain the War effort and keep the troops there indefinitely, or be accused of surrendering to America's enemies.
Despite Obama's intent in his speech to reassure War skeptics (and they are not only on the left) that his escalation is limited in scope and time, his actual words left him plenty of wiggle room to keep large numbers of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. His promises of de-escalation in 18 months were merely aspirational. "These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin [emphasis added] to transfer our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011...We will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground".
Obama's words themselves leave substantial space to draw down a handful of troops and leave 100,000 or more troops stationed in Afghanistan for many more years to come. A headline in The Washington Post read "A Deadline written in quicksand, not stone", and the accompanying article went on to say that "President Obama's 18-month deadline for starting the Afghanistan pullout didn't survive its first 18 hours" and called it "a gesture aimed to assuage the antiwar left". In testimony before Congress, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton quickly walked back the 18-month deadline.
Then appearing yesterday on Meet The Press on Sunday, Gates and Clinton gave it the coup de grace. Clinton stated, "We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop dead deadline. What we're talking about is an assessment that in January, 2011, we can begin a transition". So a troop withdrawal quickly morphed into an "assessment" about a "transition". Gates stated firmly, "We're not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We're talking about something that will take place over a period of time...Because we will have a significant--we will have 100,000 forces--troops there. And they are not leaving--in July of 2011. Some handful or small number or whatever the conditions permit, we'll begin to withdraw at that time".
So despite Obama's slight faint to the left with his apparent 18-month timeline to appease war critics, he gave himself plenty of wiggle room to leave over 100,000 troops (and over 100,000 additional civilian contractors) in Afghanistan for years to come, without even having to declare a change in strategy. No wonder war hawks like Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman were reassured when Gates and Clinton gave similar reassurances before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As Secretary Clinton told the Committee, "I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving".
But if hawks have good reason to be reassured, War critics, particularly among millions who actively supported Obama's election, should not be reassured. As Eugene Robinson wrote in The Washington Post,
"If the Taliban begins losing ground, many of its fighters will just melt back into the population and bide their time until the president's July 2011 deadline arrives. At that point, will the Afghan military really be able to stand alone against even a latent Taliban threat? If not, Obama's deadline will be meaningless and U.S. forces will be struck in Afghanistan, in large numbers, for the foreseeable future."
As I watched President Obama shake hands with the cadets at West Point after his speech, I wondered how many of them would, within a few years, die or be maimed for a mistake. Obama is following in George W. Bush's footsteps, acting as though we can be made safe from terrorism by conventional warfare using large numbers of conventional soldiers. To quote Gene Robinson again:
"Even if the surge works, why wouldn't al-Qaida--or some like-minded group--simply set up shop in Somalia? Or in Yemen, another failing state? Or in some other wretched corner of the world where central government authority is weak and resent of the West's dominant power is high...In the end--even if conditions in July 2011 are such that Obama can order a real withdrawal, not a token one--the larger threat of terrorism will remain. The 'drain swamp' approach to fighting terrorism doesn't work if the virulence can simply infect the next swamp, and the next. .. George W. Bush chose a path toward a more or less permanent state of costly, deadly, low-level war. Barack Obama should have taken a different course."
Those of us who worked to elect Obama owe those young cadets something better than the continuation of the George Bush long-war strategy that Obama is offering them. We need to take the energy that we put into electing Obama and put it into pressuring him to change course.
We may need to again see tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest a mistaken War waged by a Democratic President. It won't be as easy as it was during Vietnam when the draft threatened hundreds of thousands of young people with being sent thousands of miles away to kill and die to protect a misled President from being accused of "losing Vietnam". But it's no less necessary. And we can't let President Obama's deceptive 18-month timelines deter us from that task. We need to do all we can to be sure that those cadets he addressed at West Point do not become the last men (and women) to die for a mistake.