U.S. troops will train and fight alongside local forces.
Meanwhile, other U.S. forces will continue to target al-Qaida.
And when the violence has begun to subside, U.S. troops can begin to come home -- if conditions permit.
President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan sounds a lot like President Bush's new strategy for Iraq.
In fact, it is Bush's Iraq exit strategy -- which then-Sen. Barack Obama bitterly opposed. So did then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who defended Obama's war plan on Capitol Hill Wednesday, along with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In fact, as details of the new strategy emerge, they begin eerily to echo a phrase much maligned two years ago as the Iraq war and opposition to it each reached full intensity: As they stand up, we will stand down. It's déjà vu all over again, as Andrea Stone noted
in her commentary on Sphere.
"As we turn over more districts and more provinces to Afghan security control, much as we did with the provincial Iraqi control, there will be a thinning of our forces and a -- and a gradual drawdown,'' Gates explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"This is going to be a process,'' Gates continued. "And I think it has much in common with the way that we began to draw down in Iraq.''
The one clear -- and controversial -- difference between the Bush and Obama exit strategies is Obama's suggestion that troops could begin to come home after July 2011. At that point, U.S. military commanders will begin to "transition'' responsibility for Afghanistan's security from American troops to Afghan forces, and American withdrawals would follow.
But even that hazy landmark seemed to become even more vague as Gates and other officials sought to explain the new strategy Wednesday. If it looked like that "transition'' date is not appropriate, Gates conceded under questioning, then the White House would re-examine the strategy itself.
At the White House Wednesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said it flatly: "A conditions-based drawdown will begin in July 2011.''
But Mullen, the senior-most U.S. military officer and the president's chief military adviser, declined to predict the timing and pace of conditions-based troop withdrawals. "All of us can look out and think -- you know, speculate what those conditions will be, but I think we have to be careful about that,'' he said. But July 2011 "is the goal right now.''
In rolling out his new Afghan plan Tuesday night to a hall packed with cadets at West Point, Obama acknowledged that however much he opposed the Iraq war -- a point he repeated -- a potentially tricky withdrawal of U.S. forces seems to be working there reasonably smoothly.
According to the timetable that Bush administration officials negotiated in 2008 with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, American combat troops will be gone from Iraq by this summer, and all American military personnel by the end of 2011.
"Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end,'' Obama said Tuesday.
He then proceeded to lay out the rational for sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan -- and for a timetable for their withdrawal sometime after July 2011. At that time, he said, responsibility for Afghanistan's security will begin to "transition'' from U.S. forces to the Afghan army and national police.
"We will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground,'' he explained.
In January 2007, another president made a similar pitch to explain his decision to "surge'' 20,000 additional U.S. troops into battle. "If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home,'' he said in an address from the Oval Office
That was President Bush, of course. In the following days and weeks, he stoutly refused to discuss a timetable for bringing the troops home, insisting that such decisions must be based on battle conditions on the ground at the time.
So has the Obama administration.
"Beginning to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans in summer 2011 is critical, and, in my view, achievable,'' Gates said Wednesday. "This transfer will occur district by district, province by province, depending on conditions on the ground . . . similar to what we did in Iraq."
Gates was hammered by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's presidential campaign rival last year, on whether American troops will begin to withdraw in July 2011, as the president seemed to suggest -- or not.
"I say with respect, I think the American people need to know whether we will begin withdrawing in 2011, and conditions are right for that, or whether we will just be withdrawing no matter what?' McCain thundered.
It depends, Gates said. The White House will convene a conference in December 2010, to assess progress in Afghanistan and will make a judgment about how quickly the transition and subsequent troop withdrawals could occur.
"Our current plan is that we will begin the transition in local areas in July of 2011,'' Gates told McCain. "We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective. If it appears that the strategy's not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself.''
But he stressed that the Afghan troops will have American support as long as it is needed.
"We're not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away,'' he said.
Why, then, the July 2011 date?
Failing to set a deadline for the Afghan army and police to begin taking over "would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government,'' Obama said Tuesday. "It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.''
A clearer answer came from Gates, under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. Who was the audience for the setting of that date?
The Afghan government, in part. "Frankly, we have to build a fire under them,'' Gates said, referring to an Afghan government that he suggested is comfortable with building its forces at a too-leisurely pace.
"I think the other audience, frankly, is the American people, who are weary of eight years -- after eight years of war, and to let them know this isn't going to go on for another 10 years,'' Gates said. He added quickly that the president "always has the option to adjust his decisions.''
Graham: "So it is not locked in that we're going to be withdrawing troops in July 2011? We're going to look throughout the process, particularly in December of 2010, and make a decision then as to whether we should withdraw at a certain pace or not withdraw at all. Is that correct?"
"It is our plan to begin this transition process in July of 2011,'' Gates said. "As I say, the president always has the freedom to adjust his decisions.''