Most of the postmortems of President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy speech focused on the announcement of an 18 month timetable after which a drawdown and handover to local forces would begin. Opposition Republicans took the president at his word and warned about signaling weakness, whereas critics in his own party saw the deadline as a cynical gesture to buy time.  The reality seems to be that deadline is a signaling mechanism but a very flexible one.


WaPo columnist Dana Milbank joked yesterday that, “President Obama’s 18-month deadline for starting the Afghanistan pullout didn’t survive its first 18 hours.” 

Slate‘s Fred Kaplan expanded on that, summarizing the testimony of Secretaries Gates and Clinton and JCS Chairman Mullen on the Hill.

At [Wednesday]’s hearings, starting with Sen. John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate armed services committee, and continuing throughout the day, lawmakers expressed worry—in some cases, outrage—that declaring a timetable for withdrawal would only demoralize the Afghans and encourage the Taliban to “lie low” until we leave, then come out and pounce.

Gates and Mullen repeated time and again that this wasn’t going to happen. First, they said, the key word in Obama’s speech was that U.S. troops would begin to turn over the lead role in the fight to Afghan security forces. The pace of this process, and the end point of the withdrawal, will be determined by “conditions on the ground.”

Senior officials, who briefed reporters before and after Tuesday’s speech, made this same point. But Gates and Mullen took it further. “An exit strategy, goodbye … That’s not going to happen,” Mullen assured the House foreign affairs committee. “It’s a transfer and transition policy,” not a pullout.

Upon further questioning, it became apparent that Gates viewed the deadline is more a planning point than a fixed milestone.

Several legislators asked what would happen if the Afghans weren’t ready by then. Gates and Mullen replied that they and the U.S. commanders in the field calculate that, because of Obama’s surge (and they did call it a “surge”), some Afghans will be ready by then. But a review of the situation will be conducted in December 2010; and if it looks like the Afghans won’t be ready by the following July, the administration may have to rethink its strategy.

Apparently, however, this is not the signal that the White House wished to send.  CBS’ Chip Reid reported Wednesday evening that, White House spokesman Robert “Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in – there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It’s etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel.”

But Gates was right back at it Thursday, testifying in his opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that,  “July 2011, the time at which the president said the United States will begin to draw down our forces, will 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 was further quoted in today’s Washington Post saying the withdrawal will “probably” take two to three years but emphasizing that “there are no deadlines in terms of when our troops will all be out.”

Oh, and the Pentagon acknowledges in the same story that, while the president promised that the surge of 30,000 troops would be there by the beginning of 2010, the reality is that “the Pentagon will be able to push about 20,000 to 25,000 troops into the country by late summer, but that the final brigade — about 5,000 troops — will probably not arrive until early fall.”

So, what to make of all this?   Is the administration deliberately trying to sew doubt on the issue, consoling hawks that the deadline is just a planning tool while giving hope to doves that the end is in sight? Was it, as analyst Steve Hynd put it, “simply PR statements intended to soften public perceptions of an occupation without end. That is, they were lies”?

My view is somewhat more charitable than that.  I tend to agree with George Washington University’s Marc Lynch,

I haven’t heard anybody yet say that they believed that Obama would really start drawing down in June 2011, no matter what he says.  And yet the strategy depends upon that commitment being credible, because that is what is supposed to generate the urgency for local actors to change. I believe that Obama and his team really want things to work out this way, and have carefully thought through how to work it.   But when things don’t go their way, will they really follow through on their promises to draw down?   Few people believe that.  And if they don’t believe it, then the mechanism of pressure doesn’t operate.

Beyond that, I agree with my colleague, Harlan Ullman, that the speech and the deadline “bought some breathing room for the administration with an increasingly dubious public” and think that was the point. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.