Tensions Flare Up Between White House, Pentagon as Afghanistan Drawdown Nears

Defense Secretary Gates has warned against "premature" changes.

ByABC News
June 7, 2011, 5:11 PM

WASHINGTON, June 8, 2011— -- The debate over the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, set to begin next month, is unearthing old tensions between the Pentagon and the White House that could present new political and logistical challenges for President Obama.

Soon-to-be-retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on his final tour of the country this week, warned that it would be "premature" to make any significant changes to the military campaign in Afghanistan before the end of the year or until the United States can say that "we've turned the corner here in Afghanistan."

The White House, on the other hand, continues to argue that the cuts in the numbers of troops will be "real."

Even if the Pentagon and White House agree on the number, Gates' public dissent makes it difficult for the president to sell that number to his supporters, who are getting increasingly agitated over the growing cost of the war.

"For all that this team's been through already, they've almost managed to manufacture a little farewell soap opera and I'm not even sure the stakes are high enough in terms of potential areas of disagreements to justify that," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and former national security analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

"I think Secretary Gates may have been just a wee bit sloppy," O'Hanlon said. "That might not be the best way to achieve his intended outcome. The idea of creating this fissure publicly -- they actually work against his interests more than for them."

The White House says the president has yet to make a final decision on the numbers, but several reports have suggested that 5,000 combat troops may be brought home in July, with roughly an additional 5,000 by the end of the year.

There are currently about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, so the withdrawal could be less than 10 percent, a number that is already riling up Obama's liberal base.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said he wants to see 15,000 U.S. troops out by December.

"I think Democrats want to see and what I think the American people want to see is a shift from the U.S. playing the dominating role in Afghanistan to a significant and early transfer of responsibility to the Afghan people and certainly I think the end of the year, a significant, substantial draw down would accommodate that objective," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said Monday on "Top Line".

This is not the first time in recent years the White House is finding itself at odds with the Pentagon over the number of troops in Afghanistan. In 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recommendation for a troop surge received a cool reception in Washington, even though the president eventually approved it, at a cost of $36 billion.

What's different now is the lack of public support for the longest war in U.S. history.

A record two-thirds -- or 64 percent -- of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting, a steep rise from 44 percent in late 2009, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll published in March.

Nearly 80 percent of independents said Obama should withdraw a "substantial number" of troops from Afghanistan this summer and barely more than a quarter felt the war is worth its costs.

What the president may have working in his favor is that the war falls well below the economy and employment on Americans' agenda, which could make it easy for him to sell the drawdown numbers, even if his liberal base is unhappy with them.

"It's difficult to turn that into a winning issue for Democrats because you're criticizing a Democratic president by doing it. You're going to get continued tepid support for the war and a desire to see a more rapid drawdown from Democrats, but are they going to make that the top of their agenda when you've got ... other issues looming?" said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department policy planning staff member. "I'd say the political space is there for the president to take if he wants it and there are reasons to think that he might."

The change in leadership is also expected to be a game changer.

Incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is a seasoned Washington insider who understands the dynamics of Beltway politics. Gates, though tremendously influential in policy planning debates, was considered by many to be an administration outsider. Though he worked that aspect in his favor, it often put him at odds with the officials in the Obama administration.