Another general is working to undercut the president's prerogatives on Afghanistan. This time, it's U.S. Marine Corps General James Conway working to frame the July 2011 deadline to start troop withdrawals as something that can be essentially ignored by him and his subordinates. President Obama must ask swiftly and strongly to rein in this new runaway general and get our troops home. Conway spent an afternoon at the Pentagon on Tuesday undermining the president's deadline for significant withdrawals starting in July 2011. He started by relaying the admonition of a lance corporal: "Sir, don't let our country go wobbly on us now." Then, he let it be known in no uncertain terms that none of "his" Marines would participate in a July 2011 drawdown:
"Finally, though I certainly believe some American units somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibility to Afghan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines. ...I honestly think it will be few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us."
The caveat given by Presidents Bush and Obama ad nauseum--"conditions on the ground"--has been widened so far that it threatens to totally neutralize the drawdown portion of the president's Afghanistan strategy. The entire general officer corps seems to be comfortable openly deriding or dismissing the idea of a significant drawdown in July 2011. President Obama has no one to blame but himself that this keeps happening.
By allowing a string of major administration officials, from General Petraeus to Secretaries Clinton and Gates, to equivocate about July 2011 on Sunday morning talk shows immediately after the West Point speech, Obama, intentionally or not, telegraphed a lack of enthusiasm for the deadline to every stakeholder paying attention. In so doing, he let a narrative develop that the reason he included a deadline was because he had to speak to "multiple audiences." Among military officials and Washington, D.C. power-holders, a interpretation took hold that the president was placating restless voters with assurances that we shouldn't take too seriously.
Now, generals under his command openly deride the deadline as a political move. Conway is only able to show such open contempt for a meaningful deadline because Obama sat back and watched while this process took place. The general went so far as to say that the deadline is giving the insurgents "sustenance," but that's okay, because they'll be shocked and demoralized when he and "his" Marines don't go anywhere.
Just who is running the show here?
President Obama needs to come out right now and reiterate that there will be a drawdown that begins no later than July 2011 and that it will involve significant numbers of U.S. troops. In fact, he should go further: He should set a hard end-date for the combat mission that occurs no later than December 2011.
Right now, there are at least three generals--Petraeus, Conway, and Caldwell--working hard to frame the president's July 2011 drawdown as something they can essentially ignore when it comes to extending a brutal, costly war that's not making us safer. If the president doesn't take the situation in hand and counter the Pentagon's in-your-face campaign to neuter the drawdown component of the time-limited escalation plan, he risks getting outmaneuvered in the press just like he did when General McChrystal played hardball on last year's strategy review.
Worse, he'll have demonstrated to the generals that they, not he, run the show in Afghanistan. If the president doesn't want this war to devour his legacy and corrode civilian control of the military further, he needs to act swiftly and decisively to get his generals back in line and get our troops home.
If you're with the almost 60 percent of Americans who oppose the war in Afghanistan, join the tens of thousands of others fighting to end it at Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook.