Last week President Obama announced what was widely understood as a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He said his plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops, plus several thousand more from other countries, should not be interpreted to mean that he wants to prolong the war. To the contrary, he said, "these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011." But over the weekend, the president's underlings were keen to reassure those alarmed by the not-so-imminent American departure that the departure date he presented with great fanfare does not really mean anything:
We have strategic interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times," said Gen. James L. Jones, the president's national security adviser, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union." "We're going to be in the region for a long time."…
"There isn't a deadline," [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "What we have is a specific date on which we will begin transferring responsibility for security district by district, province by province in Afghanistan, to the Afghans."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Gates said that under the plan, 100,000 American troops would be in Afghanistan in July 2011, and "some handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time."
Per Obama's defense secretary, then, after 18 months the U.S. will begin to withdraw "some small number" of troops from Afghanistan, assuming that everything is going according to plan—i.e., that a corrupt and incompetent Afghan government has miraculously become clean and able.
Eight years ago, a large majority of Americans supported the forcible toppling of the Al Qaeda–friendly Taliban regime as a justified response to 9/11. It seems fair to say that if they had known U.S. troops would still be fighting in Afghanistan a decade later, they would have been less enthusiastic. Instead of retaliation aimed at disrupting and deterring support for anti-American terrorism, the goal quickly became creating durable peace and stability by building a strong central government where none has ever existed. Instead of reconsidering that goal, Obama has reaffirmed it and given it a realist gloss, declaring that "the security of the United States and the safety of the American people [are] at stake in Afghanistan." Although he said he decided against an "open-ended escalation of our war effort" that "would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade," viewing a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as essential to "the safety of the American people" assures that "we're going to be in the region for a long time."