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Decoding Obama's comments on war in Afghanistan: What did he really mean?

Obama’s citing of ‘fragile but reversible progress’ in his review of the war in Afghanistan is a signal to all the parties involved, including Americans, that the US withdrawal may go slowly.

By Staff writer / December 16, 2010

President Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden (c.) and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, gestures as he speaks about the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, Thursday, Dec. 16, at the White House in Washington.

Susan Walsh/AP

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A year after announcing 30,000 additional troops for the US-led fight in Afghanistan, President Obama offered a mixed picture of “fragile” progress and of more difficult days ahead in his annual review of the war.

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Yet compared with a year ago – when Mr. Obama set the stage for the beginning of a troop withdrawal in summer 2011 – the president’s message on Thursday was more focused on the conditions that will determine the pace of a drawdown over the next four years.

The shift in message is in part designed to tell the central actors in the war – the Taliban, the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the Afghan population – that the US and its partners are not pulling out any time soon, some policy analysts say. The review also reflects the commitment the US and NATO members made earlier this month to a transfer of combat responsibilities to Afghan security forces by December of 2014.

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Moving the goal posts

“The administration has rather subtly moved the goal posts from 2011 to 2014, something it began doing about six months ago,” says James Dobbins, a longtime US diplomat and Afghanistan expert now at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va. While 2011 had “some utility, particularly in domestic politics,” Ambassador Dobbins adds that the administration quickly realized the date also had some costs.

“It fed the impression in the region that the US could simply be waited out,” he says, “and that our support of the government in Afghanistan had a time limit on it.”

The message of “fragile but reversible progress” also signals to Americans less supportive of the war than ever that the next six months will be critical to determining the magnitude – or mere symbolism – of the drawdown to begin in July 2011.

The early months of the year, when the Taliban’s traditionally return to offensive mode, will offer a hint of how “fragile” the security progress is, military experts say, and thus of what kind of drawdown the US can safely begin in July.

Message to Pakistan

Aside from the Afghan security conditions, the review’s assessment of “fragile but reversible” progress also applies to the engagement of the Pakistani government in tackling of safe havens from which fighters in Afghanistan operate.

Obama referred to “regional cooperation” – referring primarily to Pakistan – as one of the key pillars of the administration’s Afghanistan strategy.

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