Marking July 2011 as the month when American forces would start to withdraw from Afghanistan, as President Obama did last year, served two purposes. First, to keep pressure on the corrupt, ineffective, and generally terrible Afghan government to stop being so corrupt, ineffective, and generally terrible, because soon we wouldn't be around to coddle them and keep their country even remotely intact. And second, to show the many Americans who believe we're long overdue to end this war that, despite recently sending in even more troops, we're almost done!
But by telling the Afghan government we're leaving, and telling the American people we're leaving, the Obama administration was also telling the Taliban that we're leaving. Apparently, this wasn't helping the push along with nonstop air strikes to get the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. Why give in now if you can just hold out for a few months and have your way with Afghanistan, on your own terms? The administration is also worried that the July 2011 date "has convinced Pakistan's military which is key to preventing Taliban sympathizers from infiltrating Afghanistan to continue to press for a political settlement instead of military action."
So message shift!
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.
Multiple administration officials deny to the Times that this represents any change in plans, and in an interview with the Huffington Post, Obama aide David Axelrod says, "There is no change in the president's position."
And this is actually true. Obama never said July 2011 was when we'd pull out all of our troops and hand over the keys to Afghanistan. In fact, in the year since announcing the July 2011 drawdown date, Obama has repeatedly tried to downplay its significance. He always gave himself leeway to decide exactly how quickly we'd be withdrawing. Now we have a little more clarity: not that quickly.