Roundtable on Petraeus and Afghanistan

Roundtable on Petraeus and Afghanistan

By Special Report With Bret Baier - June 24, 2010


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we saw yesterday was a change in personnel, but not a change in policy.

Here is what we did not say last year. We did not say that starting July, 2011, suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan. We didn't say we'd switch off the light and close the door behind us.


BRET BAIER, "SPECIAL REPORT" HOST: President Obama today talking about the policy in Afghanistan after his decision to put General David Petraeus at the helm there on the ground.

Now here is how Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the change. He said that, "General Petraeus is absolutely behind the president's strategy. He agrees with the December review and he also agrees with the timeline to begin a drawdown," Gates said, "in July of 2011 that is conditions-based." That is a word that you did not hear from President Obama today.

What about all of this? Let's bring in the panel, Steve Hayes, senior writer for the Weekly Standard, A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. OK, Steve, did you detect nuance here and how it was phrased about the July, 2011 drawdown?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes. There was some. You still didn't have the president say it's all off. Everything we talked about before, the recommendation that came from the political team to have the July, 2011 withdrawal date is off. And it would have been great to hear that, because that's the most important thing the president could have said today.

Having said that, there were things I think in his statement today and also in his statement yesterday that indicate that he understands that there needs to be flexibility on that and that there will be changes that come in with David Petraeus. He said today, for instance, he said he is going to be insisting on the unity of purpose, on all branches of the U.S. government in such a way that reflects the dedication of the military. Now, who is he talking to there? He is clearly not talking to the military, not talking about Gates, not talking about Petraeus. My interpretation of that is he is talking about Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry the ambassador there, and that he is talking about Joe Biden, saying you need to get on the same page, you need to stop taking shots at one another. And David Petraeus is going to come in and change the culture here. And I think that's a very good thing. It's not a withdrawal date, but it's a good thing.

BAIER: He was asked specifically, A.B., if he would make other changes to personnel, basically, the Holbrookes, the Eikenberrys, those folks on the civilian side. He didn't really answer that question today.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, THE HILL: I think if he is going to make those changes he wouldn't give us indication of it today. It will come up as a surprise.

What is interesting is General Petraeus has a good relationship with everybody. He does with Holbrooke, Eikenberry, Clinton, with everybody. So that is just an interesting shift as he comes in. It doesn't mean that the president doesn't want to get rid of anybody else. I think what happens with the withdrawal date is I think it's implicit. I think when he brought in Petraeus and asked him to take the demotion and make a sacrifice for the mission, it was clear that David Petraeus won't be boxed in by any kind of withdrawal date he doesn't believe in that isn't conditions-based. And so the president realized these divisions are so poisonous and dangerous, the important thing is unity. Right now it's unity of rhetoric. Everyone means the same thing but they say we agree on the mission. They just don't want to use words "conditions-based" and make it sound like there is disagreement. So they're all talking about it in a strange way, but that is what I take away from yesterday and today.

BAIER: Charles, this is a general who ran the troop surge in Iraq successfully. We know Iraq is a different animal than Afghanistan, completely different. But here the president is empowering Petraeus to make the calls now. What about that?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Look, there was this remarkable success in Iraq and the fact that we have Petraeus in place is our best hope of repeating it.

But the biggest self-inflicted impediment and the biggest difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is in Iraq we have president famous and attacked for his stubbornness. He never spoke about exit strategy or date of withdrawal. He was in the surge unconditionally and he wanted to wait until it succeeded.

We got from this president, President Obama, announces a surge in Afghanistan and the next sentence in the speech he made on December 1 he says we will begin withdrawal, leaving in July, 2011.

You can do all the interpretation and parsing of words that Gates said, that the president is saying today, we're not going to leave, what did he say, and turn the lights out on that date. But look, we can do criminological interpretation.

Next week, the whole national security team will be standing on Lenin's tomb. And say Biden is standing closer to Obama than Petraeus is and that means 2011 is off.

All the president has to do is say, he doesn't have to withdraw the 2011 date, he just has to say the target is July, 2011, however, it will depend on conditions on the ground. Nine words, I think it is. Nine words.

And that will dispel the ambiguity. And the reason it's important is not that we understand or predict what is happening but it has an effect on Afghanistan today. From a president to a peasant in Afghanistan, if we have ambiguity, and we do, you are going to be really careful about siding and helping us.

BAIER: Because we are trying to interpret it, and we follow it every day.

Steve, last word. Does Vice President Biden come out on the low end here after that article, all the things said about him, his interpretation and strategy, tactics, going forward, and what the president said today?

HAYES: I don't think there is any question he does. It's hard if you go back and you read the literature and reportage on Afghanistan going back since they came to office. It's hard to find something, a point at which president Obama has taken Joe Biden's advice really on anything with respect to Afghanistan.

And that makes it so frustrating for the president and those who believe in his policy that there is so much talk about what Joe Biden believes in, what advice he is giving in what's happening.


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