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Obama's Line in the Afghan Sand

(White House/Pete Souza)
As Abe Lincoln watches, President Obama met with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, left, and General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, in the Oval Office on Monday.

The general and the ambassador are testifying before Congress today on the situation in Afghanistan, while the president shifts his attention to the economy and jobs with a speech at the Brookings Institution.

But the parsing of Mr. Obama's July 2011 timetable for troop withdrawals given during his Afghan war speech last week at West Point continues unabated as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates meets in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

During his December 1 speech at West Point, speaking of the addition of 30,000 American soldiers, as well as NATO troops, to the Afghan front to secure the "common security of the world," Mr. Obama said:

"Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011." Special Report: Afghanistan

With a troop surge, Mr. Obama could give the generals what they wanted, and with a firm withdrawal date, he could give the American people, concerned about extending the 8-year war in Afghanistan indefinitely, some green shoots of hope.

But after a week of massaging the message from the top brass in the Obama administration and the military, it's clear that July 2011 deadline is line in the sand that could be erased depending on how the winds are blowing.

Last week, Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the July 2011 would be the "beginning of a process, but the pace and character of that drawdown, which districts and provinces are turned over and when, will be determined by conditions on the ground. It will be a gradual but inexorable process."

Gates added that the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would probably take two to three years and that there are no deadlines for total withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.

General James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, came up with the best line, declaring that July 2011 is the start of a "ramp" rather than the edge of a "cliff."

(CBS/Karin Cooper)
On the Sunday news programs, Mr. Gates was more declarative in interpretation of Mr. Obama's July 2011 withdrawal date.

Following is an exchange about the July 2011 deadline between Bob Schieffer and Gates on "Face the Nation":

SCHIEFFER: But, in other words, there's not a deadline? Is that what you're saying, that we will look at what things -- what's going on, on the ground, and then we'll decide where to go from there?

GATES: Let's be clear. The -- the date in July 2011, to begin transferring security responsibility and thinning our troops and bringing them home is firm.

What is conditions-based is the pacing at which our troops will come home and the pace at which we will turn over responsibility to the Afghans. That will be based on conditions on the ground.

SCHIEFFER: So we get to the month, the magic month and he might decide to bring six troops home or something like that? And that would mean...

GATES: Or 6,000.

SCHIEFFER: ... that that's what he's talking about? But it might be six?

CLINTON: Well, you know, Bob, I think it's very hard for any of us to be armchair generals.

SCHIEFFER: Precisely.

Adding another, more optimistic twist, on Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that U.S. troops in Afghanistan could begin coming home before July 2011. "It could happen earlier, sure," Gibbs said. "It won't happen later."

Today, Ambassador Eikenberry added that the July 2011 deadline was "a very good forcing function to get the Afghans to stand up."

(AP Photo/Justin Sullivan, Pool)
Speaking from Kabul today, Afghan President Karzai estimated that it would be at least five years of "maximum effort" before Afghanistan assume security responsibility for the country. He also predicted it would take 15 to 20 years for the country to be able to sustain its security services without financial aid and training from the U.S. and other nations.

In a joint news conference with Karzai, Gates said, "We will fight by your side until the Afghan forces are large enough and strong enough to secure the nation on their own." The July 2011 withdrawal date may be at odds with Gates' goal to fight alongside Afghan forces until they are self sufficient.

Mr. Obama is walking a fine line in drumming up support for his Afghanistan strategy of a logistically challenging surge and an initial troop withdrawal in 18 months. A corrupt and weak Afghan government; an untrained, mostly illiterate Afghan army; 34 disparate provinces, many with their own agendas; and an unforgiving landscape stand in the way of meeting deadlines set in December 2009.

Mr. Obama is literally between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Afghanistan. Bob Schieffer called Mr. Obama's West Point speech and outline of his Afghanistan strategy a "the defining moment of the Obama presidency."

"This was the night when Barack Obama that took full ownership of the war in Afghanistan. We're going to have 100,000 troops there, and more than half of them will have been sent there by the president."

At this point the president owns the wars, and the winds of public sentiment appear to be shifting in his favor. In a new Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent of American voters said fighting the war in Afghanistan is the right thing to do, while 35 percent were opposed, according to the poll, conducted Dec. 1 through Dec. 6. Only 48 percent of Americans said fighting in Afghanistan is the right thing to do in a Quinnipiac poll from Nov. 18.

However, if July 2011 comes and 6 rather than 6,000 U.S. troops are sent home, the winds could shift radically in the other direction.

Mr. Obama relies on his prodigious intelligence and Spockian logic in making assessments and decisions, and juggling numerous priorities. The Afghan strategy represents the best worst scenario, because none of the options were any good.

In trying to make the best of a bad and complex situation, and with the 2012 election in sight of his July 2011 deadline, the Mr. Obama would do well to heed the advice of another war president, Lincoln, hanging in the background of the picture above:

"Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."
- Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Ottawa" (August 21, 1858)

Daniel Farber is editor-in-chief of
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