Afghanistan: Is 2014 the new 2011 for Pentagon war planners?

Senior military officials are now playing down the July 2011 deadline Obama had set for starting US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Instead, the Pentagon is talking up late 2014 as handover date.

Massoud Hossaini/UPI/Pool/File
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (R) and commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus meet at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 3. Petraeus arrived on July 2 to assume command of the international military mission in Afghanistan.

Senior US military officials are increasingly deemphasizing the July 2011 deadline set by President Obama earlier this year for beginning US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, instead talking up a 2014 date cited by President Hamid Karzai as the year he would like Afghans to take over their own security throughout the country.

But as the Pentagon begins to shift emphasis to the end of 2014 – with White House backing – there is concern about what becomes of the sense of urgency that the earlier date was meant to communicate to the Karzai administration.

This comes amid evidence, too, that Mr. Karzai has in mind a considerably different approach to US operations than do senior US military officials. Such differences prompted NATO commander Gen. David Petraeus to express his “astonishment and disappointment” on the heels of Karzai’s recent remarks that, among other things, he wanted US troops to be less intrusive in the lives of Afghans.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

Petreaus also reportedly speculated during a private meeting about what might happen in a "hypothetical" scenario in which the general might be forced to pull back on US operations in the wake of Karzai's remarks, according to a Washington Post report – presumably an effort to place pressure on Karzai.

Many US military officials dismiss Karzai’s comments as primarily for public consumption at home, and point out that a 2014 date to end US combat operations in Afghanistan gives Karzai some political breathing room. The same is true for the Obama administration.

Over at the Pentagon, too, it has been clear for weeks that military officials have been slowly backing away from July 2011 as a date that will hold much meaning for most US troops on the ground.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week emphasized that July 2011 is hardly an end date for US troop involvement in Afghanistan and that “most” US forces will continue to fight in Afghanistan long after next summer has come and gone.

“It’s a years-long process,” said Secretary Gates. People say, " 'Well, you picked July 2011 and that lets the Taliban know there’s an end date.' Well, I hope the Taliban think that’s an end date, because it’s not. They are going to be very surprised come September, October, when most American forces are still there and still coming after them.”

At this week’s NATO summit in Lisbon, one item on the agenda will be simply “to embrace President Karzai’s goal of completing the transfer of security responsibility to Afghanistan by 2014,” Gates says.

The director of the Pentagon’s Pakistan/Afghanistan Coordination Cell, Brig. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, said at an Army symposium in October that he believes it would be possible for Afghans to take over security responsibilities in their country “by the end of 2014.” He also noted that strikes by US special operations forces are continuing at an “unprecedented” pace with “a tremendous amount of success.”

“Every 24 hours, on average, we’re killing or capturing three to five midlevel enemy leaders and 24 enemy fighters,” Nicholson said. This, in turn, has “lowered the average age of enemy leadership because they’re getting killed so quickly. It’s severely disrupting their command and control in country.”

The concerns Karzai cited this week include special operations night raids, however. How the US military will work that out with Karzai “remains to be seen,” says Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan.

Could the strategy Petraeus envisions succeed without special operations night raids? “Not in the view of the command, obviously,” says Lapan, who adds that he is not aware of any plans to stop conducting night raids.

For his part, America’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, says he is “comfortable” with the 2014 end date as an item on the agenda at the NATO summit, and “as a goal.” He adds, however, that “it’s always difficult to predict four years out.”

Mullen says he doesn’t see the 2014 date as undermining the sense of urgency Mr. Obama meant to convey by choosing July 2011 as a withdrawal date for US troops. “I might turn it to say that [2014], too, creates a sense of urgency for the Afghan leadership,” he says.

In the meantime, Mullen expects the war in Afghanistan to continue apace. “It’s a very tough time,” he says. “And I expect [that] not just this year, but next year will be a pretty tough fight as well.”

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

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