Obama is caught in a deadline crossfire in Afghanistan

President Obama is caught on the horns of an Afghan deadline dilemma.

In December at West Point, the president pledged that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

He never spelled out the pace at which they’d leave, and he talked of a “responsible transition.” But Afghans took him to mean we were heading for the exits.

This made the Taliban bolder and less likely to agree to a negotiated settlement. In other words, setting the 7/11 deadline made it less likely that it could be met. “The timeline is cutting our own throats,” said David Kilcullen, author of the new book “Counterinsurgency” and an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus on strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The administration finally recognized this trap and is now backpedaling on the deadline. Last year, Vice President Joe Biden said “a whole lot of people” would be “moving out” of Afghanistan in July 2011, but last week he told ABC-TV the number could be “as few as a couple thousand troops.” Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the timing and size of the withdrawal had not been decided.

Yet domestic pressures are mounting: 153 House Democrats voted for a clearer timetable, and even some Republicans are getting war jitters. Meantime, U.S., European and other foreign leaders set a new deadline in Kabul, endorsing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plan for his forces to take responsibility for security by 2014. Of course, no one believes the Afghan army and police will be able to protect their country on their own by 2014 (let alone 2011), unless the fighting diminishes before then.

So, Obama is caught in the deadline cross fire. He doesn’t want to get trapped in an endless war. But the best hope of withdrawing responsibly requires U.S. troops to shift the momentum, convincing the Taliban they cannot win and must break with al-Qaeda. At that point, the Afghan government could negotiate from a stronger position and bring some Taliban factions into the government. But the 2011 deadline has had the opposite effect.

Meantime, Karzai, believing the Americans are leaving, is frantically pursuing peace talks with top Taliban, who show no interest in compromising. This has spurred non-Pashtun ethnic groups to start rearming to prevent the Pashtun Taliban from making a comeback. “People are clearing the decks for renewed civil war,” Kilcullen said.

Everyone knows the United States cannot remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. However, the unexpected change of U.S. command in Afghanistan and the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus provide one last chance to do counterinsurgency right.

Obama’s troop “surge” will come fully online only by late August. Petraeus has already squeezed Karzai into endorsing a program for reintegrating low- and mid-level Taliban into society and a plan to train village self-defense forces. Can the general persuade local Afghans to stand up against the Taliban? Maybe. Can he persuade Karzai to devolve more powers — and channel more international aid funds — to local officials? Possibly.

And can he persuade Karzai to clean up his act, and that of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose corruption has undercut the long-awaited offensive in Kandahar? Perhaps. “Petraeus’ main activity in Iraq,” said Kilcullen, “was to meet with (President Nouri al) Maliki every night, coercing, persuading, until he did the right thing.” No doubt he will try the same with Karzai.

Given the lack of good alternatives, the least bad is to stop talking about deadlines and give the general a fair shot.

Trudy Rubin, a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, can be reached at trubin@phillynews.com.