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Withdrawal timeline 'invigorates' Taliban, Afghan officials say

The Obama administration's plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 is giving a morale boost to the Taliban, Afghan officials said Wednesday.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

The Obama administration's plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 is giving a morale boost to the Taliban, Afghan officials said Wednesday, echoing remarks made by a top U.S. military official a day earlier.

"This is giving more reason and propaganda for the anti-government elements to prolong the fight," Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimy said of President Barack Obama's timetable on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

"Such assertions could be used in favor of insurgents for ... empowering their forces and giving reasons to fight," he said. "The withdrawal should be based on the capability of the Afghan security forces."

U.S. Marine Corps General James Conway said on Tuesday that plan to start withdrawing American troops in July 2011 had likely energized the Taliban.

Conway claimed Obama’s timeline to begin withdrawal is "giving the enemy sustenance" by sending the message that all they have to do is wait for the Americans to leave to take over control of Afghanistan.

But Conway added that it is possible the deadline could work in favor of U.S. forces. Marines likely will be in Afghanistan well after July 2011, he said, which could come as a surprise to the insurgents. What the enemy leadership will say "when we're still there hammering them?" he asked.

Conway also appeared to hint that Obama's deadline to begin the withdrawal of Afghanistan was in part a political move because "President Obama was speaking to several audiences at the same time."

He acknowledged that Americans are "growing tired of the war" in Afghanistan. Pointing out that 60 percent of Americans polled recently are against the war, Conway said America's "leadership has to do a better job of explaining the last chapter" of the war and the consequences should the U.S. abruptly pull out of Afghanistan.

He also said foreign forces should only withdraw when Afghan forces are ready and able to take over — a view expressed this month by the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.

Conway's assessment is likely to fan criticism of Obama's war strategy ahead of U.S. congressional elections in November as public opinion of the conflict sours and casualties rise.

During a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in December, 2009, Obama pledged to boost the number of American troops in the country by 30,000.  But he also detailed a plan to start a drawdown within 18 months.

"Taken together ... additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," he said.

Supporters of the July 2011 date to start withdrawing forces, conditions permitting, say it conveys a needed sense of urgency to Kabul. Afghans must quickly ramp up the size of their security forces for a gradual handover.

There are currently almost 100,000 American troops and 45,000 foreign soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.

No 'great exodus'Conway predicted that a significant number of U.S. Marines and combat forces will actually still be in Afghanistan "hammering" militants well past the July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawal of American forces.

This more nuanced assessment of Obama's plans for the war in Afghanistan was in line with others in the administration, NBC News Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said.

"Nobody in (the Pentagon), nobody in this administration, except perhaps (Vice President) Joe Biden, nobody thinks that July 2011 will be the start of a great exodus" from Afghanistan, he said.

The administration has been trying to appease the left of the Democratic Party, which largely supports a speedy exit from Afghanistan, he said.

"The White House has been purposefully ambiguous … they wanted to have it both ways," Miklaszewski said.

Critics in Afghanistan say Obama's strategy has backfired.

"There is still a threat which unfortunately has not been eliminated, and the withdrawal (deadline) will ... invigorate the terrorists," said Siamak Herawi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"Withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan should be based on the situation on the ground. When Afghan forces are enabled from every aspect, so it is obvious that international forces have to go home," Herawi said.