Assuming Gates is accurately representing the intentions of President Obama (and there's no reason to think he isn't), it means that the deadline is, as I wrote on Wednesday, much closer to being meaningless than it is counter-productive. Over at Shadow Government, Kori Schake agrees with this assessment, writing that:
There is a precedent we loyal opposition could help steer President Obama toward: the flagrant prevarication committed to by civilian and military leaders in the Clinton administration that American troops deploying to the Balkans in 1995 would be withdrawn in a year. The fiction was necessary to gain Congressional support for an unpopular involvement; 1,500 U.S. troops are still deployed in Kosovo now, 14 years later. There are lots of important differences between the wars in the Balkans and the war in Afghanistan -- not least the magnitude of expense in Afghanistan -- but in the Balkans, Congressional skepticism was overcome as we began to succeed. Let's hope such a calculation underlies the president's artificial timeline in Afghanistan.But Schake seems to be ignoring a difference that worries me, a difference that could shift a meaningless deadline to a counter-productive deadline. When President Clinton promised that the US troops deployed to the Balkans would begin returning in a year, the deadline fell after the 1996 election; indeed, almost immediately after the election, in which foreign policy and the US troop presence in the Balkans was scarcely discussed, Clinton explicitly broke his promise and decided "in principle" to keep the troops in place until at least mid-1998, 18 months longer than his self-imposed deadline.
But Obama's July 2011 comes before his re-election campaign in 2012. Given that many are predicting relatively high losses for the Democratic Party in 2010 midterm elections, will Obama risk the backlash from breaking his promise? Treating the July 2011 deadline as meaningless risks giving the Republicans an easy issue with which to attack Obama ("he broke his promise") and risks alienating the anti-war wing of his own party, who will likely be dismayed if July 2011 comes and gos with little progress in bringing the boys home. To wit, the New York Times has an article detailing the frustrations of the Democratic Party with Obama so far. The article details "a subtle shift in which Democrats in Congress are becoming less deferential to the White House, making clear that Mr. Obama will not always be able to count on them to fall into line and highlighting how Mr. Obama’s expansive ambitions are running up against political realities."
Will Obama be tempted to enforce his self-imposed deadline to reap political benefit? Hopefully not...but he might. Which is why the deadline was a bad idea in the first place. It's either meaningless or counter-productive; it's just hard to see what Obama gets out of it that he couldn't have accomplished through the creation of benchmarks.
Wars are not fought on time lines; they are fought to achieve strategic goals. And those goals are either worth fighting for or they are not. Obama has stated that the war in Afghanistan is one of "necessity" and is a "vital national interest." The war should then be fought to achieve the strategic goals that the commander-in-chief establishes. It is, of course, reasonable to ask at certain points in time whether the goals are being achieved and whether the cost is justified. But it is dangerous to create an arbitrary deadline as Obama has done here.