How Long in Afghanistan?

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 10:38 AM EDT

I've been meaning to write an Afghanistan post that brings together a few related worrisome threads — including this one, which I'm still trying to digest and make sense of — but that'll have to be for another time. For now, here's this:

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that major parts of the military operation to secure Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, would be pushed back because it was taking longer than expected to win local support.

....McChrystal said it was taking longer than anticipated to gain the blessing of local tribal leaders — and Kandaharis in general — for the operation. He also said commanders needed more time to ensure that Afghan government could step in after the fighting stops and provide effective public services, something that has been lacking in Kandahar for years.

....Asked whether he considered the Kandahar delay a setback in the Afgan war, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, said the difficulties were actually an indication of progress in the overall war effort. "I foresee a very tough time in the coming weeks and months, because we are now targeting what I call the Taliban heartland in Helmand and Kandahar," he said at a news conference.

In one sense, this is fine: at least we're not getting happy talk or five o'clock follies. Things aren't going as well as we'd like and McChrystal and Rasmussen are willing to fess up to this.

At the same time, this is pretty obviously an effort to prepare the ground for staying in Afghanistan longer than we'd like. Probably a lot longer. Remember this conversation from Jon Alter's The Promise?

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"

"Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.

"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"

"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.

Last month I said, "Promise or not, I'll bet that next year, when the drawdown is supposed to start, Petraeus tells us we need to stay." It sure sounds to me as if McChrystal is starting the PR campaign for this now. And if there's anything the Pentagon has gotten good at in the Petraeus era, it's mounting a PR campaign.