By Jules Witcover

Here is the implication of the weekend interviews given by Gen. David Petraeus: When President Obama's timetable to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan arrives next summer, if necessary the general will be able to get his boss to blink.

In repeated responses in television and newspaper talks, Petraeus suggested that Obama had left some wiggle room in the pullout timetable, allowing for consideration of conditions on the ground at the time. And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hinted that the beginning of the withdrawal could be only token, to meet Obama's commitment.

But Obama's clear intention in imposing a timetable on his agreement last December to a 30,000-troop surge was that it would be a do-or-die last test of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The message was that it would either work or it would end, as public opinion at home desired.

As noted by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, that was the mutual understanding as reported in "The Promise," a book by Jonathan Alter of Newsweek on Obama's first year. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months," Obama is quoted as asking Petraeus, "then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?" Petraeus is quoted as replying: "Yes sir, in agreement." No direct source for the quotes from the private meeting is offered.

On NBC News' "Meet the Press" Sunday, moderator David Gregory asked Petraeus whether it was his understanding that at the time of Obama's scheduled start for pulling out the American troops, he could recommend against it. The general replied: "Certainly, yes. The president and I sat down in the Oval Office and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice."

White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton was quick to say "the date is not negotiable," and that "there is no daylight between the president and his commanders." In other words, Petraeus' interview remarks in no way altered that agreement, and there was no real inconsistency between what he had said and the president's position.

Despite the disappointing military developments in combating Taliban strongholds, both Petraeus and the White House noted that only now has the bulk of the planned troop buildup been completed and in place. Still, there is barely a year left in the agreed plan to create conditions that would warrant a safe withdrawal without undermining the U.S. mission.

But what that mission is in terms of the earlier strategy agreement is not the defeat of the Taliban insurgency outright. Rather, it is to achieve sufficient stability of the regime in Kabul to deny the remnants of the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks sanctuary to operate from the country, and to track them down along with other terrorist elements.

One of the major outcomes of the long discussions of Obama and the National Security Council with now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the original architect of the request for the troop surge in Afghanistan, was a shift in emphasis back to targeting al-Qaida. Petraeus, as top region commander, was present and signed on.

A condition of Obama's agreement to the surge was a refocus away from the nation-building objective of the previous Republican administration, and the inclusion of a firm timetable for beginning the combat troop withdrawal 18 months later (that is, a year from now).

While not explicitly stated, the timetable clearly was a political sop to antiwar Democrats in Congress and a recognition of growing public impatience with the long war in the face of deep economic distress at home.

With the next presidential election year looming when the withdrawal deadline arrives, if the surge forces are still in place Obama will have hell to pay with his own party and with much of this country as well.

So any eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Petraeus and Obama down the road over withdrawing from Afghanistan would constitute huge fireworks, for all the assurances now that they are in agreement on the current course of the war.


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© Jules Witcover

World - Afghanistan Timetable Remains a Factor of Uncertainty | Global Viewpoint