Obama homed in on an Afghanistan pullout date

It started out as a projection from the military, intended only for the ears of the president and his top advisors. But in a war council meeting at the White House less than a month ago, Obama proposed making it public.

“Let’s name that date,” he said, according to participants.

And then on Tuesday, he did.

The date, July 2011, is when the Afghan troop buildup is supposed to be working well enough against the Taliban-led insurgency that some troops can start to come home.

Revealing that key marker on the U.S. military timeline has emerged as the most controversial component of the president’s plan. It has attracted criticism from Capitol Hill and sown anxiety among allies, some unsure whether the timeline meant that the United States was planning to leave quickly or stay indefinitely.

It was also a contentious idea within the Pentagon. The date was first discussed as part of internal planning. The idea of sending a public signal to enemies and allies alike that the U.S. was already planning a pullout was of particular concern to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, a key member of the war council.

Gates backed the plan once he felt he had adequate assurances that the pace of the U.S. military withdrawal would be determined by commanders, based on the situation in Afghanistan.

Obama opted to take the highly unusual step, senior aides said, because, in the end, administration officials believed the need to put tangible pressure on the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan outweighed any potential cost.

As Obama’s aides coalesced around the plan, they gave it a name -- “max leverage” -- that captured in brief what it was supposed to accomplish: getting the greatest possible impact from 30,000 additional troops in the shortest amount of time.

The plan grew out of meetings chaired by Obama -- they began in September and lasted until the final one, before Thanksgiving -- aimed at forging a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The situation was deteriorating under the previous U.S. approach approved early this year, shortly after Obama issued a deployment order for 21,000 troops.

Despite that addition, the top U.S. commander sounded grim warnings and in early fall requested up to 40,000 additional troops.

For September and most of October, Obama conducted weekly sessions on the situation, demanding new reports every few days and drilling his war council with questions. Key moments of the meetings were described by administration officials who attended them and who spoke on condition of anonymity. In addition, other officials described the thinking of some who participated in the sessions.

Aides say Obama kept his own cards close to his vest, listening to discussions among aides, including Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other civilian and military advisors.

After two months of sessions, Obama began to zero in during a meeting in late October on the timing of a troop buildup, signaling that he wanted more troops moving into the region faster than military brass had proposed.

One succinct exchange would prove portentous. The president wanted to know when the effects of the new strategy would become apparent, based on an ongoing Pentagon analysis of its own plans.

“When will we know that our concept is working?” Obama asked, recalled one official who was present.

“Our best sense,” replied Gates, “will be in late 2010 and into mid-2011.”

According to accounts by senior officials in the administration, that day’s discussion formed the basis of the decisions that would follow, including a time frame for the troop buildup of 18 to 24 months, a pace developed amid growing public opposition to the war and concern about its cost.

Two weeks later, Obama delayed his scheduled departure for Asia in part so that he could drive home those points with his team of advisors.

On Veterans Day, after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in a cold drizzle, Obama convened his war council for the eighth time.

By this time, the staff was ready to present timelines. In a slide presentation in the Situation Room, the group looked at a bell-curve graph projecting a troop buildup over time -- a few at first, then an increasing flow that would crest and trickle off.

To emphasize his desire to speed up the deployment, the president held up a printout copy of the bell curve and pointed to its apex, indicating the peak of the flow.

“He says, ‘I want to move this to the left,’ ” as one official recounted it, speaking on condition of anonymity. “ ‘We need more troops in sooner.’ ”

For months, said a senior officer, the military’s U.S. Command had been examining ways to insert forces faster. Logistics specialists held drills in Afghanistan, Kuwait and other locations to see how fast they could move people and equipment into the war zone.

Meanwhile, engineers in Afghanistan had begun preliminary work to see how quickly they could build austere infrastructure to house thousands of additional troops.

Armed with that work, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of Central Command and chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, told the president that, yes, the military could pull off the buildup he was requesting.

“We did so in Iraq,” said Petraeus, who designed and oversaw the Iraq troop buildup. “We can do so again.”

On the question of taking troops out, the president had grown more adamant about sending a clear signal to Afghan leaders that they would have to prepare to take over responsibility for their country’s security.

“Gates has given him the date” by which results could be measured, said a second senior administration official, referring to the late 2010, mid-2011 time frame. “The president says: ‘Let’s name that date.’ ”

The logic was simple, as Obama made the case: He wanted to send a clear signal that the United States was not writing a “blank check” guaranteeing military support for an indefinite period of time. This, he believed, was the most effective way to ensure that the Afghans took him seriously.

Aides too knew he was serious. Not long after Obama took off for Asia, he called Gates from Air Force One.

Obama specifically asked him to work on the plan: more troops in faster, and a date certain for drawdown to begin. It would maximize U.S. leverage, he said.

Key White House players -- Emanuel among them -- didn’t go on the president’s weeklong trip so they could work on the strategy.

Gates had doubts about announcing the date for starting withdrawals. In the past, he had been opposed to such public deadlines.

Several times during the strategy review, Gates had spoken with administration officials about the 1989 decision to halt U.S. aid to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew, and about the long-term damage it did to American standing in the region. He did not want the Afghans or Pakistanis to feel that they were being abandoned for a second time.

But Gates agreed that the original Obama administration strategy review in March had produced a plan that seemed open-ended. The new plan, Gates said, needed to show both Afghans and Americans that the U.S. military was not on a nation-building mission, a task that rightfully belonged to the Afghans.

Gates was also persuaded by Petraeus and others that announcing the date would help create an incentive for the Afghans to act, he said this week.

The proposed date also would make it such that the withdrawal of troops would begin just as the campaign for the 2012 presidential election was heating up.

Still, it was crucial to Gates and other military officials that Obama not announce a specific drawdown plan. Doing so could embolden militants, Defense officials said. Gates and others wanted to make sure that the pace of the drawdown would be based on the security situation -- not a set timetable.

“Ultimately,” said a senior Defense official, Gates “wanted conditionality, and got it.”

By the time Obama summoned the war council for its ninth and final meeting, the Monday before Thanksgiving, he had almost all the information he wanted. All that was left was a final poll of his top advisors.

“I want you to tell me how you feel about this ‘max leverage,’ ” he said. If people had any objections, he said, he wanted to know.

One by one, team members weighed in on the tenets of the plan, a “conditions-based transfer of authority to the Afghans,” as one witness described it.

No one voiced objection, the two senior administration officials said.

Let him know before Thanksgiving if they had second thoughts, Obama told his team. Otherwise, they could expect his decision within the week.

Eight days later, in his speech to the nation, Obama appeared before cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to declare:

“As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

“These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”

Greg Miller in the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.