With the House poised to consider the Pentagon’s request for $33 billion for more death in Afghanistan, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told the Huffington Post she expects a "serious drawdown" of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. The House Rules Committee has now approved an amendment for consideration on the war supplemental that will allow Speaker Pelosi to "put her money where her mouth is."
Some folks in Washington who want the war and occupation in Afghanistan to continue indefinitely are trying to pretend there has been no commitment made for a significant drawdown, or indeed any drawdown at all, in the summer of 2011. Speaker Pelosi is in a unique position to weigh in on this question, since the House could put the drawdown in writing when it considers the war supplemental, by approving an amendment introduced by Representatives McGovern and Obey to try to lock in the drawdown.
In Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, Vice-President Biden told us that we can "bet" on "a whole lot of people moving out" in July 2011. Under pressure, presumably from people in the Pentagon who want a "serious drawdown" in July 2011 to be hostage to "conditions," Biden’s people have tried to walk back this statement by saying it was an "offhand comment" made as Biden was leaving an interview.
But if you actually read Alter’s text, "offhand comment" is hard to swallow. Here’s the paragraph:
At the conclusion of an interview in his West Wing office, Biden was adamant. “In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it,” Biden said as he wheeled to leave the room, late for lunch with the president. He turned at the door and said once more, “Bet. On. It.”
"Bet on it." Isn’t that what we say to each other in English when we’re very, very sure of something? How about when we Repeat. It. For. Emphasis? When Scarlett O’Hara said, "As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again," was that an "offhand comment," too?
More importantly, in the context of Alter’s account, Biden’s comment isn’t an outlier; it’s the main theme.
Alter describes a "pivotal" November 11 White House meeting on Afghanistan:
Obama was moving out of his probing mode and toward conclusions and eventually presidential orders. This would not be a five- to seven-year nation-building commitment, much less an open-ended one. The time frame the military was offering for both getting in and getting out must shrink dramatically, he said. There would be no nationwide counterinsurgency strategy; the Pentagon was to present a “targeted” plan for protecting population centers, training Afghan security forces, and beginning a real—not a token—withdrawal within 18 months of the escalation [that is, by summer 2011; my emphasis -RN].
Obama asked Biden to come back early from Thanksgiving in Nantucket to join him for the meeting.
As they walked along the portico toward the Oval Office, Biden asked if the new policy of beginning a significant withdrawal in 2011 was a direct presidential order that couldn’t be countermanded by the military. Obama said yes. [my emphasis – RN]
As far as I know, no-one has disputed this part of Alter’s account.
How does Alter know what Obama said to Biden? Was he there? Presumably, he got it from Obama and/or Biden, or their people.
In the meeting, Alter reports, Obama made the generals sign in blood on the timetable for beginning the drawdown:
Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 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 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”
“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.
“Yes, sir,” Mullen said. [my emphasis -RN.]
Note that by appointing Petraeus to replace McChrystal, Obama appointed one of the two military leaders who, according to Alter, signed in blood on the deadline for starting the drawdown.
Alter summarizes the point of this exchange: "Obama was trying to turn the tables on the military, to box them in after they had spent most of the year boxing him in… The commanders couldn’t say they didn’t have enough time to make the escalation work because they had specifically said, under explicit questioning, that they did."
Pelosi told Huffington Post: "I did consistently hear that the timetable was on schedule to have serious drawdown."
If all these promises are no good, then we are in very serious trouble with the Obama presidency overall, not just on Afghanistan.
Indeed, the British newspaper The Independent reports – based apparently on military sources whose interests are obvious – that McChrystal’s recent bleak assessment of the prospects for the war, which was regarded as a threat to the July 2011 drawdown, was as responsible for his ouster as the Rolling Stone article:
It was this briefing, according to informed sources, as much as the Rolling Stone article, which convinced Mr Obama to move against the former head of US Special Forces, as costs soar to $7bn a month and the body count rises to record levels, because it undermined the White House political team’s aim of pulling some troops out of Afghanistan in time for the US elections in 2012.
General McChrystal’s presentation to Nato defence ministers and Isaf representatives provided an uncompromising obstacle to Mr Obama’s plan to bring troops home in time to give him a shot at a second term, according to senior military sources.
The reality, according to a senior military source, is that General McChrystal’s candour about the reality of the situation was an obstacle to Mr Obama’s search for an "early, face-saving exit" to help his chances in the 2012 presidential elections. "Stan argued for time, and would not compromise. Rolling Stone provided an excuse for Obama to fire the opposition to his plan without having to win an intellectual argument," he said.
All this is being reported from the perspective of military sources. But presuming that these sources are not just making things up out of whole cloth, if you read the Independent account from the point of view of someone who wants the "serious drawdown" to take place, or even from the point of view of someone who doesn’t want President Palin to be making judicial appointments or choosing members of the National Labor Relations Board in 2013, or who doesn’t agree with House Republican Leader John Boehner that we should cut Social Security to pay for the war, what you have to conclude is that the "serious drawdown" is under ongoing threat from military and right-wing pressure, and that the advocates of "serious drawdown" got a lucky break when McChrystal and his henchmen blabbed their "Team America" worldview to Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.
That all suggests that if Speaker Pelosi is "serious" herself, she ought not to limit her efforts to support a "serious drawdown" to giving an interview in the Huffington Post. She should use this opportunity to help make sure the "serious drawdown" of July 2011 is indeed "etched in stone."
The House Rules Committee has approved a rule on the supplemental that will allow a vote on an amendment introduced by Representatives McGovern and Obey that would try to "etch in stone" Obama’s "Promise" of a summer 2011 drawdown.
The McGovern-Obey amendment would require the President to present Congress with 1) a new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan by January 31, 2011 and 2) a plan by April 4, 2011 on the safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, including a timeframe for the completion of the redeployment. The amendment also requires Congress to vote by July 2011 if it wants to allow the obligation and expenditure of funds for Afghanistan in a manner that is not consistent with the president’s announced policy of December 2009 to begin to drawdown troops by July 2011.
If Speaker Pelosi is "serious" about a "serious drawdown," she should use her considerable influence in the House to ensure that the McGovern-Obey amendment becomes law. You can contact your own Representative here.