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Originally published Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 8:02 PM

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White House moves away from 2011 Afghanistan withdrawal timeline

The Obama administration is walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the Afghanistan war in an effort to de-emphasize the president's pledge that he would begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011.

McClatchy Newspapers

Related developments

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Canada staying: Canada will keep 900 to 950 troops in Afghanistan in a noncombat training role after Canada's combat mission ends in 2011, a senior government official said Monday. They would remain in Afghanistan until no later than 2014. Canada has about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan. More than 150 Canadian soldiers have been killed and more than 1,500 have been wounded.

Iraq extension weighed: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the U.S. is open to the idea of keeping troops in Iraq past the current agreement, under which U.S. troops must leave by the end of 2011. Any request to extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq would have to come from a functioning Iraqi government, but the parliament has been squabbling since the March 7 election.

Seattle Times news services

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has decided to walk away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the Afghanistan war in an effort to de-emphasize the president's pledge that he would begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials said Tuesday.

The new policy will be on display next week during a NATO conference in Lisbon, Portugal, where the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014, according to three senior officials and others speaking anonymously as a matter of policy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said Afghan troops could provide their security by then.

The Pentagon also has decided not to announce specific dates for handing security responsibility for several Afghan provinces to local officials and instead intends to work out a more vague definition of transition when it meets with its NATO allies, the officials said.

What a year ago had been touted as an extensive December review of the strategy now will be less expansive and will offer no major changes in strategy, the officials said. U.S. Central Command, the military division that oversees Afghanistan operations, hasn't submitted a withdrawal order for forces for the July deadline, two of those officials said.

The shift, begun privately, came in part because U.S. officials realized that conditions in Afghanistan were unlikely to allow a speedy withdrawal.

"During our assessments, we looked at if we continue to move forward at this pace, how long before we can fully transition to the Afghans? Of course, we are not going to fully transition to the Afghans by July 2011," one senior administration official said. "Right now, we think we can start in 2011 and fully transition sometime in 2014."

Another official said the administration also realized in contacts with Pakistani officials that the Pakistanis had concluded wrongly that July 2011 would mark the beginning of the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

That perception, one Pentagon adviser said, has persuaded Pakistan's military — key to preventing Taliban sympathizers from infiltrating Afghanistan — to continue to press for a political settlement instead of military action.

"This administration now understands that it cannot shift Pakistani approaches to safeguarding its interests in Afghanistan with this date being perceived as a walkaway date," the adviser said.

The midterm elections have eased pressure on the Obama administration to begin an early withdrawal. Some congressional Democrats this year pressed to cut off funding for Afghanistan operations. With Republicans in control of the House beginning in January, however, there will be less push for a drawdown. The incoming House Armed Services chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., told Reuters last week that he opposed setting the date.

On Tuesday, a White House official said the administration might withdraw some troops in July and may hand some communities over to Afghan authorities. But he said a withdrawal from Afghanistan could take "years," depending on the capability of the Afghan national security forces.

He also said the December review would measure progress in eight areas, although he declined to specify what those are. Congress will receive a report by early next year, but Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan, will not testify.

"This is designed to be an inside-the-administration perspective," the White House official said, adding it will "set the policymaking calendar" for the Obama administration's first six months of next year.

De-emphasizing deadlines also allows the administration greater flexibility in responding to conditions in Afghanistan, officials said.

While the Taliban are facing increasing coalition airstrikes, they have no driving incentive to negotiate with an unpopular government. U.S. officials quietly worry that while they, too, are seeing some drops in violence and the Taliban's hold in pockets of Afghanistan, those limited improvements aren't leading to better governance.

A U.N. report issued in August showed that civilian casualties rose 31 percent during the first half of the year compared with the previous year; 76 percent were caused by the Taliban, it said. More than 400 U.S. troops have been killed this year.

Christopher Preble, director for foreign-policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he's not surprised that the scope of the December review has narrowed and that Obama administration officials no longer are highlighting the July 2011 date.

"The very players who were arguing so strenuously for a deepening of our involvement in Afghanistan a year ago are unlikely to now declare that their earlier recommendations were faulty," he said.

McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.

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