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On Afghanistan, Obama shifts away from July 2011

The question is whether Congress and the public will consider this a "tweak." It's true that NATO leaders at this week's summit also will pledge to begin a "transition" to Afghan command, in carefully selected districts, next year. Adding 2014 as a focus doesn't contradict the literal meaning of Obama's West Point speech. And White House officials hope that, as long as military progress is evident, antiwar sentiment can be contained.

But after nine years, fatigue and impatience run high. Stories of Karzai's inconstancy and Afghan corruption dominate the media. People wonder why stabilizing Afghanistan is essential if terrorists can shelter as easily in Yemen or Somalia. Obama has made clear that he shares the impatience - that he resents how Afghanistan drains resources and attention from other foreign and domestic priorities.

But over the course of his review in fall 2009, he also concluded, rightly, that the United States - having abandoned Afghanistan and Pakistan once, in 1989, to disastrous effect - cannot afford to do so again. He nonetheless set a deadline, in order to spur the Afghans to prepare to defend themselves and to buy time and support at home.

But deadlines, whether in 2011 or 2014, carry risks. They embolden enemies and encourage regional players to jockey against one another, rather than pulling together toward U.S.-backed goals, as they worry about protecting their interests after U.S. troops leave.

And if Obama committed U.S. troops because defeat would be unacceptably dangerous to U.S. interests, why would that be any less true in August 2011 - or January 2015?

Privately, administration officials acknowledge that U.S. involvement won't end even after 2014. The Afghan forces that will, ideally, take command then will cost far more than Afghanistan can afford, and they will continue to need military, as well as financial, help.

As Sedwill said, "We hope by then that very few of the foreign troops will be in combat" and that most will be providing training and support.

But that's a message for another day - after Obama explains to Americans that the war won't be ending next summer.

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