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President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office on Aug. 31, 2010.
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office on Aug. 31, 2010. (AP)

WASHINGTON — On the same night that President Barack Obama told the nation he had kept his campaign promise to end combat operations in Iraq, he also emphasized that he will keep his promise to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan next summer.

In contrast to recent remarks by top Pentagon officials downplaying the July 2011 deadline, Obama said the recent increase in U.S. forces there is only for a “limited time” and he remains committed to shifting the burden of fighting from war-weary U.S. troops to the fledgling Afghan forces.

“Next August, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility,” he said in his Oval Office address. “The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure.

“But make no mistake: This transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

Since the White House announced the July 2011 deadline last December, critics have blasted it as an artificial target that could embolden enemy fighters. Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have labeled it a mistake, and House minority leader John Boehner said Tuesday that “using campaign promises as a yardstick to measure success” endangers U.S. troops.

But in recent weeks military leaders also seemed to be backing away from the deadline. In a Pentagon press conference last week, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway said that he does not believe any Marines will be involved in that drawdown, and “I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.”

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said he’d be willing to recommend a delay if battlefield conditions don’t improve dramatically, calling the July 2011 simply “a date when a process begins.”

And just hours before the president’s speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while calling next summer’s transition an important milestone, said any drawdown will be “gradual and conditions-based, accompanied by a buildup of our military assistance and civilian development efforts.”

“Success there is not inevitable,” Gates said. “But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is worth the fight.”

In his speech Tuesday, Obama acknowledged that Americans face “a time of great uncertainty” after nearly a decade of continuous war. He said the 30,000 new U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan since January are crucial to stabilizing the country, but only serve a temporary purpose.

“As was the case in Iraq, we can’t do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves,” he said.

Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the president’s remarks were focused not only on the U.S. audience but also on Afghan partners. While military commanders have emphasized that the American military is committed to the fight, the president’s statement reminds those partners of the responsibility they’ll have to assume soon.

“I think there’s a certain degree of coherence in the two messages,” he said. “I think the military has moved beyond the McChrystal incident, and there are clear lines of authority. But each group has its own message to put out there, and the president’s was aimed at emphasizing that this is not an open-ended war.”

In declaring an end to combat operations in Iraq — “This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office,” Obama said — the president noted that more than 100,000 U.S. troops and millions of pieces of military equipment have been pulled from Iraq. Those moves, he said, allow American troops to “go on the offense” in Afghanistan, with an eye toward the same transitional success.

But Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the conservative Brookings Institution, said the president left himself flexibility in his Afghanistan transition promise. Despite Obama’s aversion to open-ended war, “conditions on the ground” is open-ended criteria. And varying assessments of those conditions, O’Hanlon said, could lead to major troop shifts next year or merely symbolic moves.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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