- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2010

Confusion reigns over the administration’s Afghanistan policy, particularly regarding the timetable for withdrawal of American forces. “There has been a lot of obsession” about the issue, President Obama explained over the weekend. If people are preoccupied with the topic, the president only has himself to blame.

Mr. Obama kicked off a series of ambiguous messages when he told the nation on Dec. 1 that his surge strategy would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates explained in congressional testimony the next day, “if it appears that the strategy’s not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself. We’re not just going to throw these [Afghans] into the swimming pool and walk away.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added, “I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving,” and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “the July 2011 date is a day we start transitioning, transferring responsibility and transitioning. It’s not a date that we’re leaving.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acted quickly to bring the statements back into line. “Let me be clear, because the president was clear,” he said on Dec. 2. “Our forces, in July of 2011, will transition out of Afghanistan.” Six months later, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter that July 2011 was a hard deadline for major troop movements. “In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out,” he said. “Bet on it.” That would not be a smart bet. In Senate testimony two weeks ago, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his role at the time as Central Command commander, said that “it is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is: the date when a process begins, based on conditions - not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits.”

On June 20, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel emphasized that the July 2011 date was “firm” and “deals with the troops that are part of the surge, the additional 30,000. What will be determined at that date or going into that date will be the scale and scope of that reduction.” Note the shift in message. The hard deadline now deals only with a limited number of troops, and July 2011 only marks the date when a decision will be made as to how many - if any - of that limited number will be withdrawn. That is a long way from the major troop movements Mr. Biden said people could bet on.

Add to this jumble a joint statement from the Group of 20 conference last weekend, signed by the United States, calling for Afghanistan to take “increasing control of its own security within five years” - not total control, just increasing control, whatever that means. On Sunday, CIA Director Leon Panetta gave a gloomy assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, saying progress is “slower than I think anyone anticipated.”

Between the conflicting statements, hair-splitting interpretations and implications that July 2011 will be a month like any other month in the Afghan war, it is no wonder people are obsessed. The mixed signals have had the most impact abroad. In Afghanistan, the date was interpreted by friend and foe alike as the date when the United States would cut the Karzai regime loose. Canada and Poland have set their own withdrawal dates - and they mean it.

So, instead of creating a sense of urgency in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama created panic. As the July 2011 date has become increasingly inconvenient, he is looking for a way to redefine it so that it means next to nothing. Our inexperienced chief executive is still learning that the words rolling off his teleprompter have consequences.

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