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From McChrystal to Petraeus: From Fry Pan To Fire?

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As one general replaces another in Kabul, it's worth noting that Obama started out last year determined to get American troops out of Afghanistan in the shortest feasible time. If that is still the president's aim, I don't think he can expect much support from the new man he's put in charge there, Gen. David Petraeus.

In The Promise, his authoritative book about Obama's first year in office, Jonathan Alter reports that the president held a series of meetings with the Pentagon brass, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as part of his three-month review for a new policy that included sending thousands of additional American troops to Afghanistan.

Central to that policy, Alter writes, was that "[b]y July 2011, a significant number of troops would begin to come home. At Mullen and Gates's insistence," however, "the plan included a caveat: conditions on the ground permitting." Obama wanted the short timeline. The Pentagon brass didn't, hence the caveat.

Alter writes that the last of those meetings was held in the Oval Office last November 29. If, indeed, his account of the meeting is correct - and he apparently got at least a partial transcript -- Obama addressed Gen. David Petraeus, whose responsibilities as head of U.S. Central Command included Afghanistan as well as Iraq, this way:

"David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in eighteen months?

"Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.

"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in eighteen months, then no one is going to suggest we stay. Right?"

"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus replied.

"Yes, sir." Mullen said.

The president was crisp but informed. "Bob, you have any problems?" he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it. The president encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda , and build the Afghan army. "I'm not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don't agree with me that we can execute this, say so now," he said.

No one said anything.

"Tell me now," Obama repeated.

"Fully support, sir," Mullen said.

"Ditto," Petraeus said.

If this account is correct, the only possible interpretation is that the president was determined on a prompt drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan, beginning with a large withdrawal in July 2011. And, however reluctantly, Petraeus and the others all agreed to that plan.

But seven months later the war is going even worse for us, and Petraeus has lost whatever acceptance he had for the plan, as we're reminded by a front page story in today's Washington Post:

Called to testify before uneasy lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week, Petraeus appeared far less committed to an early, substantial drawdown of U.S. forces next year than Obama...

Counterinsurgency, he said, is a "roller-coaster experience" that does not lend itself to a strict timeline. Although he said he supported Obama's strategy, Petraeus sought to play down the deadline. He said that Obama told members of his national security team that July 2011 was the date "when a process begins...not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits...

His comments drew a direct inquiry from White House officials, who sought and received reassurances that they were all in accord.

Although the White House has firmly stuck by the withdrawal date, senior administration officials have acknowledged that reductions of coalition forces will probably be limited to those areas of the country where insurgents are already scarce.

From that, it sounds like both Petraeus and Obama have dropped the idea of a significant troop withdrawal beginning a year from July. Perhaps it was never realistic to begin with.

However, delaying that timeline would surely have political consequences, as well as miring us more deeply in a bottomless pit. One would be to outrage Obama's base and anyone else who doesn't believe the war can be won, just 15 months before the president runs for re-election. But if Obama is still determined to hold to his timeline, I doubt he can expect much help from the new general he's put in charge, a man even more popular with Republicans than with Democrats, a man who could just end up running against him in 2012.