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Afghanistan: 2014 Deadline Now Slipping

Amanda Terkel has a great catch: a senior Administration official en route to Kabul with Vice President Biden refused to state 2014 as a hard deadline for combat forces in Afghanistan:

Q: But 2014 is our goal to have all combat forces withdrawn?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: 2014 is our goal, I think, as the President said, to have Afghans in the lead throughout the country in Afghanistan. The Afghans will be taking lead responsibility in every district and province of Afghanistan. That’s the goal.

Q: But we might — we may have combat forces in Afghanistan in 2014?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to speculate on what we may or may not have in 2014 or beyond. What we do know and what’s agreed is that the Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country.

For all we know, that SAO was Vice President Biden himself. But just weeks ago, he told Meet the Press that we would be “totally out of there” by 2014.

You get the impression that there’s a lot of confusion over the policy right now. The statements of progress are not resonating with the public or the experts on the ground. It’s clear that Pakistan holds the key to success in the war, by taking on the extremists on their side of the border, and as Fareed Zakaria says, they’re unlikely to follow through.

Pakistan’s generals protest that they are fighting terrorists and that the best proof is that they are taking casualties. True. At the highest levels, the military understands that it has to fight Islamic militants. But it continues to try to make distinctions among the terrorists, wavers in its determination and remains obsessed with gaining strategic depth abroad – while its country is going up in flames.

Consider the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership is entirely in the North Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistani army has refused to attack any groups associated with it, claiming to be stretched thin. In fact, Pakistan’s generals still believe that the only way to have influence in Afghanistan is through the Taliban, with which they have had a 20-year partnership.

If Pakistan cannot reverse its downward spiral, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is doomed. As long as the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain secure and supported in their sanctuaries in Pakistan, progress in Afghanistan will always be temporary. The Taliban could easily withdraw into its Pakistani bases, allow U.S. troops to draw down later this year and then return, rested and rearmed, to renew the battle against the Kabul government. At that point, the United States will face the choice of being forced into another “surge” or continuing the drawdown in the face of a rising Taliban.

There’s no belief, even at the highest levels, that the Afghan security forces will be ready for a takeover by 2014, or that the nation as a whole will be stable enough for a drawdown. That’s why you can flip through contradictory statements from the political and military leadership on almost a daily basis. They don’t know how to stabilize a policy that has been slowly unraveling for two years.

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David Dayen

David Dayen