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Obama's Afghan exit plan transitions to 'transition'

December 7, 2009 |  2:32 am

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In the lead-up to President Obama's major Afghanistan war speech last week at West Point, all of the leaks -- and thus, the media and reader/viewer focus -- was on the quantifiable number of fresh U.S. troops the Democrat had decided to dispatch.

Over the preceding 14 weeks it took to reach his decision, there were many versions, ranging from 12,000 to the full 60,000 reportedly requested by the allied ground commander. The last 24 hours, however, the leaks from unidentified administration sources centered on 30,000.

That was also the selective lead excerpt from the president's 4,582-word address, released by the White House a couple of hours before he actually uttered the words, to help shape news coverage and steer public expectations.

Indeed, that worked. Most news reports led with that hard number while also mentioning the president's vow that their assignment was short-term and they'd start leaving just 18 months from now, in....

...July 2011. The latter was designed to assuage the mounting anti-war fervor on the left wing of the president's party and fading poll support for the 8-year-old conflict.

It was, in effect, a deft political speech designed by the White House to have it both ways -- tough talk about protecting America for the national security fanciers alongside a vow that it wouldn't last long for the anti-war folks and as a warning to slow-moving Afghans to get going.

Afghans have been fighting each other or somebody now some 30 years, since Obama was a college freshman. So whether a flexible 18-month deadline suddenly spurs them into urgent action is an open question. In his first troop surge speech back in March, Obama sternly warned Afghans to clean up their corruption act. That was followed by rigged presidential elections and, now, more aid and a new troop surge anyway. As an Afghan, what lesson would you draw from that sequence?

Here's how Obama phrased his decision to build up, then butt out:

And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

But in a classic case of White House walkback, to once again have it both ways down the road, in the succeeding six days Obama Cabinet members have been fudging the July 2011 pullout start. They were no longer emphasizing the number of new troops but instead stressing that 7/11 was only the beginning of any pullout, that it would be a slow, gradual pullout and based on conditions on the ground at the time.

Here's how Defense Secy. Robert Gates put it on ABC News: The exit, he said, "would be a responsible drawdown based on conditions on the ground. July 2011 is the beginning of a process." He then added it would be a "very gradual process" if it moved forward.

On Sunday the administration made both Gates and Secy. of State Hillary Clinton available to three major talk shows to make the same points, an indication of how badly it wanted this message to get out: 7/11 is no arbitrary date. Clinton said, "We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline."

Gates said he prefers not to use the term "exit strategy" but instead "transition," as in presumably a transition from being there to not being there, as in not fleeing but exiting in a calm and orderly manner.

In other words, the 18-month timetable to a drawdown is written in pencil -- and lightly. It could be 19, 27 or 36 months or even, hypothetically, the dread decade of nation-building that ObamAn Exit signa dismissed. President Lyndon Johnson was pretty confident about wrapping up his war more quickly with additional troops.

Later in the same speech Obama vowed: "America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan... our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."

The walkback has been a basic bipartisan tool in Washington over many years, although President Bush promised nothing-zip-nada about any withdrawal date with his even more unpopular 2007 Iraq troop surge.

Waving the 7/11 date as a nearby light at the end of the tunnel got the administration through the rough waters of his second troop surge in 11 months, having denounced Bush's surge as counterproductive.

If things go well, Obama's team can point to a promise kept come that July by flying a symbolic 20 soldiers home as the "beginning."

As Pentagon officials explain it, a year from now they will assess allied progress in Afghanistan and, using that data, decide a withdrawal start date and scale or, perhaps, impose a postponement if necessary, although that would create a whole host of ongoing political challenges for Obama the year before a presidential election. (Think of the early Guantanamo Bay detention facility promise that was absolutely, positively going to be shuttered by the end of this month, now pushed back indefinitely into 2010.)

With the Afghan walkback, the administration has now given itself copious spoken documentation to support a decision either way. People can see/hear what they want in the meantime. With quotes available for both sides to quote, the lines of what was said and meant will be blurred. Which is the point.

As the president also said in his speech, "I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." Exactly what all that means, of course, is still helpfully left to him to define in these coming months.

Related items:

Obama's Afghan speech: 4,582 words and not one was 'victory'

Full text of Obama's Dec. 1 speech at West Point

5 things to listen for in Obama's Afghan speech

Obama's last Afghanistan surge speech--March 27, 2009

-- Andrew Malcolm

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