The Obama administration is increasingly emphasizing the idea that the United States will have forces inuntil at least the end of 2014, a change in tone aimed at persuading the Afghans and the 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, Secretary of State and Adm. , the chairman of the , 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.
Administration officials said the three had made loosely coordinated comments at the conference, in Melbourne, to try to convince Afghans that the United States was not walking away next summer and to warn the Taliban that aggressive operations against them would continue. Although Mr. Obama and administration officials have repeatedly said that July 2011 would be only the start of troop withdrawals, the Taliban have successfully promoted the deadline among the Afghan populace as a large-scale exit of the 100,000 United States troops now in the country.
“There’s not really any change, but what we’re trying to do is to get past that July 2011 obsession so that people can see what the president’s strategy really entails,” a senior administration official said Wednesday.
In Australia, Mr. Gates said the Taliban would be “very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them.”
On Wednesday, the White House insisted that there had been no change in tone. “The old message was, we’re looking to July 2011 to begin a transition,” a White House official said. “Now we’re telling people what happens beyond 2011, and I don’t think that represents a shift. We’re bringing some clarity to the policy of our future in Afghanistan.”