President Obama's detrimental deadlines

Posted on June 29, 2010

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.

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