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On Afghanistan, Obama shifts away from July 2011

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Monday, November 15, 2010

When it comes to Afghanistan policy, December 2014 is the new July 2011.

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It makes sense to push further into the future any talk of the United States stepping back, and the major players have bought in: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pushed for the benchmark; the NATO alliance, which is likely to commit to it at a meeting later this week; and President Obama, who will attend the NATO summit in Lisbon.

So far, in fact, you could say that only the American people have yet to be clued in.

When Obama flew to West Point last December to reveal, after months of well-publicized review and reflection, his Afghan strategy, 2014 was not a part of the speech. Obama announced he would send more troops, but he also said, "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

The formulation was vague enough to allow war skeptics in Congress and among Obama's advisers to seize on it as a shield against an open-ended U.S. commitment, while Obama's generals emphasized instead that any adjustment of U.S. troop presence would be "conditions-based."

In recent months, the latter viewpoint has been winning.

First, Obama put Gen. David Petraeus in charge of the Afghan mission.

"We are in this to win," Petraeus said when he took command on July 4. "Win" is not a verb that Obama applies to the Afghan mission, but by naming Petraeus he put himself in the "conditions-based" school.

Then, at a U.N.-sponsored conference July 20, Karzai announced that "Afghanistan will assume the entire responsibility in terms of military and security by 2014."

By early September, when NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came to Washington, he was emphasizing the 2014 timeline as a road map that could both achieve success and gain public support. Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, had a similar message when he visited The Post later that month.

"If [the Taliban] think July 2011 is the end of the international presence, they're in for a very unpleasant surprise in August," Sedwill said.

Now, as New York Times Pentagon reporter Elisabeth Bumiller reported last Thursday, administration officials have begun to salt their speeches gingerly with references to 2014, all the time insisting that policy hasn't changed. "U.S. Tweaks Message," the Times headline explained.

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