U.S. Tweaks Message on Troops in Afghanistanhttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is increasingly emphasizing the idea that the United States will have forces in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014, a change in tone aimed at persuading the Afghans and the Taliban that there will be no significant American troop withdrawals next summer.
In a move away from President Obama’s deadline of July 2011 for the start of an American drawdown from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all cited 2014 this week as the key date for handing over the defense of Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves. Implicit in their message, delivered at a security and diplomatic conference in Australia, was that the United States would be fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for at least four more years.
Administration officials said the three had made loosely coordinated comments at the conference, in Melbourne, to try to convince Afghans that the United States was not walking away next summer and to warn the Taliban that aggressive operations against them would continue. Although Mr. Obama and administration officials have repeatedly said that July 2011 would be only the start of troop withdrawals, the Taliban have successfully promoted the deadline among the Afghan populace as a large-scale exit of the 100,000 United States troops now in the country.
“There’s not really any change, but what we’re trying to do is to get past that July 2011 obsession so that people can see what the president’s strategy really entails,” a senior administration official said Wednesday.
In Australia, Mr. Gates said the Taliban would be “very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them.”
The message shift is effectively a victory for the military, which has long said the July 2011 deadline undermined its mission by making Afghans reluctant to work with troops perceived to be leaving shortly. “They say you’ll leave in 2011 and the Taliban will chop their heads off,” Cpl. Lisa Gardner, a Marine based in Helmand Province, told a reporter this past spring. This summer Gen. James T. Conway, then the Marine Corps’s commandant, went so far as to say that the deadline “was probably giving our enemy sustenance.”
Last year the White House insisted on the July deadline to inject a sense of urgency into the Afghans to get their security in order — military officials acknowledge that it has partly worked — but also to quiet critics in the Democratic Party upset about Mr. Obama’s escalation of the war and his decision to order 30,000 more troops to the country.
On Wednesday, the White House insisted that there had been no change in tone. “The old message was, we’re looking to July 2011 to begin a transition,” a White House official said. “Now we’re telling people what happens beyond 2011, and I don’t think that represents a shift. We’re bringing some clarity to the policy of our future in Afghanistan.”
Like most people involved in the issue, the official asked for anonymity because a review of Mr. Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan is under way and people involved in it are reluctant to speak openly to reporters.
Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, was adamant on Wednesday night that the White House had not shifted. “The president has been crystal clear that we will begin drawing down troops in July of 2011,” he said. “There is absolutely no change to that policy.”
The 2014 date will be a focus at a NATO summit meeting that Mr. Obama is to attend next week in Lisbon, Portugal, where the alliance is to be presented with a transition plan, drawn up by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, that calls for a gradual four-year shifting of security responsibility to the Afghans. Administration officials said that the document had no timetable for specific numbers of troop withdrawals and instead set forth the conditions that had to be met in crucial provinces before NATO forces could hand off security to the Afghans.
Administration officials emphasized that the 2014 date was first set by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who mentioned it in his inaugural address last year and again at a conference in Kabul this past summer.
The officials acknowledged that the 2014 date was based on the presumption that the American military would be successful enough in fighting the Taliban that significant withdrawals would be under way by then. Recently, commanders in some parts of Afghanistan have reported a tactical shift in momentum away from the Taliban, but officials in Washington, though encouraged, have been skeptical or reluctant to say this will translate into strategic success.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was last in Afghanistan in September, said the 2014 date made sense, because the Afghan Army and the police were scheduled to increase their numbers to 350,000, their goal, by 2013.
“It is far enough away to allow lots to happen, yet it is still close enough to debunk the myth of an indefinite foreign occupation of the country,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.But Mr. Gates has said that the United States will nonetheless be in Afghanistan for many more years to come.