The change in the US military command in Afghanistan has brought to the forefront yet again the controversy over President Obama's July 2011 deadline in Afghanistan. Is it a deadline for the US to begin actually withdrawing its troops? Or is it a deadline to assess the progress made in breaking the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan, in order to determine the future course of action.
President Obama set the deadline in December of last year, as he announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. "These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces," he said. "And allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011".
But hours after the announcement, officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates began downplaying the deadline, amid fears that it might send a wrong message to the Taliban and also to the Pakistanis and Afghans.
The controversy came up again as the U.S. Senate was confirming General David Petraeus to replace ousted General Stanely McChrystal.
"Somebody needs to get it straight, without doubt, what the hell we're going to do come July because I think it determines whether or not someone in Afghanistan is going to stay in the fight," Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina said.
Some experts on Afghanistan agree with Senator Graham.
David Kilcullen, the Australian Army's former adviser to General Petraeus, says the 2011 date is already affecting the thinking of Pakistani and Afghan leaders. "I think both Pakistani and Afghan leaders are positioning themselves for possible future negotiations with the Taliban," he stated. "That is the rational action of local leaders that we are leaving. So I think there is a problem here relating to our declared date for pulling out and that is underpinning a lot of discussion."
But General Petraeus told lawmakers he sees the deadline as a message of urgency, to complement the message sent by deploying additional US 30,000 troops. He said rather than waiting for the US troops to withdraw, Taliban insurgents are fighting to break the alliance's will. "It is important to note the president's reminder in recent days that July 2011 will mark the beginning of a process, not the date when the US heads for the exits and turns out the lights. As he explained this past Sunday, in fact, we'll need to provide assistance to Afghanistan for a long time to come."
Anthony Cordesman, a senior Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the president should have been more careful to begin with, and fully explain the deadline, which, he says, is not just about reducing the number of US troops in the country.
"We have to show major progress in this war by 2011. We have to show that the new strategy can work. And win over time. That's the real deadline," Cordesman said. "It is not whether we can reduce the total American military manpower, or I should say, personpower."
Controversy or no controversy, some analysts point out the deadline has resulted in a renewed urgency on the part of NATO to train the Afghan security forces who are expected to gradually take over as, and when, the international forces leave the country.