David Sanger of the Times describes Obama's evolution on Afghanistan. From an early belief in remaking their society, Obama quickly shifted his focus to the US political calendar and the pursuit of victory there.
Mr. Sanger needs to flatter his sources and is broadly sympathetic to Team Obama (certainly relative to Bush). Nevertheless, his picture of a President who tuned out his generals is clear:
Charting Obama’s Journey to a Shift on Afghanistan
It was just one brief exchange about Afghanistan with an aide late in 2009, but it suggests how President Obama’s thinking about what he once called “a war of necessity” began to radically change less than a year after he took up residency in the White House.
Not long before, after a highly contentious debate within a war cabinet that was riddled with leaks, Mr. Obama had reluctantly decided to order a surge of more than 30,000 troops. The aide told Mr. Obama that he believed military leaders had agreed to the tight schedule to begin withdrawing those troops just 18 months later only because they thought they could persuade an inexperienced president to grant more time if they demanded it.
“Well,” Mr. Obama responded that day, “I’m not going to give them more time.”
A year later, when the president and a half-dozen White House aides began to plan for the withdrawal, the generals were cut out entirely. There was no debate, and there were no leaks.
So facts were not going to matter, and didn't? I believe that, but I am still surprised to see it reported. The timing is clear:
The tight group of presidential aides charged with answering questions like that — of redefining the mission — began meeting on weekends at the end of 2010. The group’s informal name said it all: “Afghan Good Enough.”
“We spent the time asking questions like: How much corruption can we live with?” one participant recalled. “Is there another way — a way the Pentagon might not be telling us about — to speed the withdrawal? What’s the least we can spend on training Afghan troops and still get a credible result?”
By early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit from Afghanistan. This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.
So immediately after the Republican wave in 2010 Team Obama cut out the generals (as well as their civilian masters) and charted a new course.
The key decisions had essentially been made already when Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his last months as commander in Afghanistan, arrived in Washington with a set of options for the president that called for a slow withdrawal of surge troops. He wanted to keep as many troops as possible in Afghanistan through the next fighting season, with a steep drop to follow. Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban. He said he “believed that we had a more limited set of objectives that could be accomplished by bringing the military out at a faster clip,” an aide reported.
After a short internal debate, Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton came up with a different option: end the surge by September 2012 — after the summer fighting season, but before the election. Mr. Obama concurred. But he was placing an enormous bet: his goals now focus largely on finishing off Al Qaeda and keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from going astray. Left unclear is how America will respond if a Taliban resurgence takes over wide swathes of the country America invaded in 2001 and plans to largely depart 13 years later.
It is revealing is that Mr. Sanger feels no need to explain that September 2012, "before the election", is not before any important election in Afghanistan.
Mr. Sanger provides a snippet of Early Obama, when he still believed in his Hope and Change:
So in the first days of his presidency, Mr. Obama asked Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer with deep knowledge of the region, to lead a rapid review. At the time, the president was still speaking in campaign mode. He talked about remaking “an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs” in Afghanistan and a “civilian surge” to match the military effort. But he said little about the Riedel team’s central insight: that Pakistan posed a far greater threat.
He really needed an expert to tell him that?
And a bit more on Obama's commitment to victory. Ooops, that's ambiguous - victory in Afghanistan:
But he also began to reassess whether emerging victorious in Afghanistan was as necessary as he had once proclaimed. Ultimately, Mr. Obama agreed to double the size of the American force while training the Afghan armed forces, but famously insisted that, whether America was winning or losing, the drawdown would begin in just 18 months.
“I think he hated the idea from the beginning,” one of his advisers said of the surge. “He understood why we needed to try, to knock back the Taliban. But the military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”
Obama's lack of commitment has been noted here for years. Oddly, the killing of Osama (by Obama!) is not highlighted as an excuse for leaving.
NONE DARE CALL IT NATION BUILDING: Both of the following passages are from young Obama's March 2009 announcement of his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan:
So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.
Per the White House press office the President's team agreed this was not a Bush-era nation-building effort. But later in the same speech:
Clear and focused. Not nation building.
Here is TNR on the December 2009 surge and withdrawal:
I wonder how many Americans who may be paying only cursory attention appreciate the thinness of Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Subsequent commentary from administration officials has made this point clearer than Obama did last night.
Administration officials were earnestly insisting the withdrawal would be "conditions-based". I guess they had not internalized Obama's commitment to victory - November 2012.