/ 1 July 2010

Obama’s twin Afghan goals: Victory and withdrawal

United States President Barack Obama has one man and one year left to win in Afghanistan.

And this week, that man warned about the year ahead.

“The tough fighting will continue,” General David Petraeus said. “Indeed, it may get more intense.”

Last year, just months after taking office, Obama wanted a new strategy to break the stalemate in Afghanistan and fired his top general there. It was the first time in 60 years that an American wartime commander was pulled from his post.

The president appointed a successor and then last week fired him too, after an embarrassing magazine profile that made General Stanley McChrystal sound contemptuous of the commander in chief.

This week, the Senate formally approved Petraeus as Afghanistan’s third US commander in just over a year. It’s hard to imagine Obama firing him too, but Petraeus faces a different kind of pressure: He really has only a year to make his mark. Obama has promised to begin withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan by July 2011.

After nine years of war there, polls suggest Americans want him to meet the deadline. Obama’s own Democratic Party supporters tend to be among the most impatient to start a pull-out. Last month was the deadliest for foreign forces since the start of hostilities and everyone is weary of the loss of life.

But Obama is pledging to win, and many Republicans wonder how the US can prevail in a war that it’s already planning to abandon.

“We need to give our strategy the necessary time to succeed,” Obama’s one-time rival for the presidency, Senator John McCain, said this week.

“We cannot afford to have a stay-the-course approach to starting our withdrawal in July 2011 when the facts on the ground are suggesting that we need more time.”

Obama has two goals that will be difficult to reconcile: Victory and withdrawal. He has one year and one man. It’s very tall order.