What is it with President Obama and artificial deadlines? First he set a deadline for shutting down Guantanamo by January 2010--yet the detention center remains open and the New York Times reports that the White House has given up on closing it before Obama's term ends. Instead of learning from that experience, Obama set another misguided deadline--this time to begin an American withdrawal from Afghanistan by July 2011. Whether the president realizes it or not, he is going to have to abandon that deadline as well--and the sooner he does so the better. The Guantanamo deadline only cost him some momentary embarrassment; the Afghanistan deadline could cost us a war.
At his confirmation hearing tomorrow, Gen. David Petraeus will be pressed to answer a difficult question: Can his counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan succeed when the U.S. has already announced a date for withdrawal? There is growing concern among congressional Republicans that the answer is no. Until last week, a revolt had been brewing among senators who backed Obama on the surge but have concluded that the deadline could bring down the entire war effort. Petraeus's nomination has for the moment quelled this insurgency on Capitol Hill, but concern remains that Petraeus may not be able to quell the insurgency in Afghanistan if the president does not untie his hands. As Missouri Sen. Kit Bond put it, if the withdrawal date stands, Obama is "setting [Petraeus] up for failure."
The deadline is more than a tactical error; it is a strategic miscalculation that undermines almost every element of our efforts in Afghanistan. A withdrawal date undermines the very premise of a counterinsurgency strategy -- that by protecting the population, you can earn their trust and get them to help you root out the terrorists and insurgents. As columnist Charles Krauthammer has explained, Afghans will not risk joining us in the fight if they think America will soon be leaving them to the mercy of the Taliban.
The damage goes even deeper than that. The stated purpose of the deadline is to put pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to eliminate corruption and increase the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government. Instead, it has had the opposite effect--creating a perverse incentive for Karzai to make overtures to the Taliban, and cut deals to stay in power, so that he can cover his bets when the Americans leave.
The deadline is also weakening our coalition. It is hard enough to get NATO countries to cough up troops, but when our NATO allies believe that America is packing its bags, they start packing as well. Canada has announced its mission will end in 2011. In February, the Dutch announced they will withdraw by this December. And last week, Poland declared that all its troops will be leave by 2012 because, as the head of Poland's National Security Bureau put it, Afghanistan is heading toward a "strategic catastrophe" and Poland needed to "seek a way out of this situation."
Obama can hardly push back on NATO allies to stay if America is not committed to staying itself.
The deadline also sends the wrong message to Pakistan. Elements of Pakistani intelligence have long maintained quiet ties with the Taliban and other jihadist groups, using these militants to destabilize Afghanistan and India. Obama is pressing Pakistan to cut these ties and help us dismantle these networks--an effort that is critical to the success of both our mission in Afghanistan and our campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal regions. But if the Pakistanis perceive America is leaving, why would they accede to such pressure?
The withdrawal date also emboldens the Taliban. As Arizona Sen. John McCain puts it, "We cannot tell the enemy when you are leaving in warfare and expect your strategy to be able to prevail."
Obama's defenders point to the fact that Petraeus set a timeline for withdrawal in Iraq. But that timeline was set nine months after the surge began, when Iraq had clearly turned a corner. We have not yet turned a corner in Afghanistan. Moreover, at the height of the surge, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have created a deadline for withdrawal--sending a clear signal of America's determination to prevail. Today, Obama appears to be hedging for defeat.
At the G-20 summit, Obama complained that there has been "a lot of obsession" with the withdrawal date. He tried to put some nuance on the deadline, declaring that beginning to withdraw troops in a years' time doesn't mean we will "close the door and shut off the lights." This nuance is lost in the voyage across the Hindu Kush. Obama cannot afford to repeat in Afghanistan what he did in Guantanamo--let the deadline linger for months after the administration knew it could not be met. The "obsession" will not end until he repudiates the withdrawal date, clearly and unequivocally.
But lifting the deadline alone is not enough; the president needs to start projecting resolve. When his health care bill was in trouble, Obama barnstormed the country like his presidency depended on it--explaining the stakes, the consequences of failure, and why he would not accept defeat. He needs to start doing that for Afghanistan--explaining the stakes, the consequences of failure, and why he will not accept defeat. If Afghanistan truly is a "war of necessity," then the security of our country depends on it. His presidency depends on it as well.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visitng fellow at AEI.