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

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“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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