Obama gives Dems wiggle room with Afghan timeline

The Afghanistan timeline set by President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAnother chance to seek the return of fiscal sanity to the halls of Congress Colombia’s new leader has a tough road ahead, and Obama holdovers aren't helping An alternative to Trump's family separation policy MORE gives Democrats some wiggle room on an issue where many feel trapped.

By setting what he calls a “timeline,” he gives liberal members who are willing to back his plan some cover that the escalation will be limited and is intended to bring the conflict to a more rapid conclusion.

But he’s also giving room to more centrist members who want to assure constituents they are listening to the “commanders on the ground.” The withdrawal Obama has cited will begin in July 2011 will occur only if a December 2010 review by the generals finds that sufficient progress has been made.

“It lacks specificity,” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyLawmakers, media serve up laughs at annual 'Will on the Hill' Overnight Energy: Trump praises Pruitt for doing 'great job' | Lawmakers want criminal probe of Pruitt | Heckler brings lotion bottle to Pruitt speech Lawmakers call for criminal investigation into EPA chief MORE (D-Va.), a targeted freshman who is also president of the Democratic freshman class. “That’s probably by design.”

House Armed Services Chairman  Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a veteran centrist lawmaker who is facing a challenge this year, said, “It's not an exit date. It's a goal.”

Skelton scoffed at GOP charges that Obama has set a date for troop withdrawal in stone, adding, “did you hear what they said, ‘situations may come up?’”

At least one Republican agreed, to an extent. Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), a former member of House GOP leadership, said Obama set the July 2011 end-date for liberals and the December 2010 review for centrists.

“Which clearly means that only a face-saving number will be coming home in July of 2011,” Putnam said. “That speech was an attempt to be all things to all people and ended up being almost nothing to [anyone].”

But whatever Obama was trying to accomplish, he didn’t win over the most ardent liberal opponents of a buildup in Afghanistan. Only slightly more deferential than Putnam, they aren’t shy about stating their worries that the policy is a sham.

“Start to withdraw?” said Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who has emerged as a leader of the opposition to Obama’s Afghanistan policy. “It’s been 50 years, and we’re still beginning the end of our withdrawal from Korea.”

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been cool to Obama’s proposal, said she believes in the president’s timeline, because it will be evaluated by the commanders who proposed it.

“Those commanders have suggested this level of resources for this particular mission,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “That should work.”

Centrist Democrats appear to like the fine line that Obama walked on troop withdrawal.

“It's important to let the Afghan government know this is not an open-ended commitment,” said Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), a sophomore Blue Dog Democrat.

Coming just after the 2010 mid-term elections, the Afghanistan review could become a major election issue if it becomes apparent that the withdrawal won’t happen.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday said he agrees with the president’s July 2011 timeline but he would not agree with any efforts to set a deadline for complete troop withdrawal.

“I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq, and I oppose deadlines in Afghanistan. But what the president has announced is the beginning of a process, not the end of a process. And it is clear that this will be a gradual process and, as he said last night, based on conditions on the ground. So there is no deadline for the withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan,” Gates told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday afternoon. “July 2011 is not a cliff.”

White House officials acknowledged that many of their policy deadlines have slipped, but insisted Obama’s Afghanistan timeline will be met. In particular, the missed deadline on closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has prompted skepticism from the left that the new Afghanistan deadline will be met.

“Guantanamo Bay is going to close, and healthcare is going to pass,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday. “Some of the scheduling on that has gotten bottled up by what has to go through Congress.”

Gibbs said that the July 2011 date for transitioning security responsibilities from U.S. troops to Afghan security personnel is not “an arbitrary date, and this was not a date the president alone picked.”

“This was a careful recommendation based on planning in the Pentagon,” Gibbs said. “This was not a calendar and a dart.”

He added: “July '11 is not picked out of thin air.”

Roxana Tiron and Sam Youngman contributed to this article.