BOSTON — The Taliban is stepping up attacks before a crucial NATO summit in Lisbon where heads of state from the war-weary coalition will gather to hear Gen. David Petraeus provide his assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
Ahead of the meeting, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is already shaping its message. It sounds like something of a climb down from the president’s vow to start a drawdown of troops in July 2011, according to military analysts in Washington.
Now the time frame that is being emphasized is 2014.
Until at least then, the U.S. will commit forces in the country. That shift from the promise of starting to pullout in 2011 to the further horizon of a commitment through 2014 is intended for the Taliban and for the Afghan government.
Washington wants to be sure both its enemy and its allies know it is in the fight for the foreseeable future, analysts say. Balancing that message with a withering European alliance will be the key challenge for Petraeus in Lisbon, where the NATO summit will be held from Nov. 19 through 21.
In his assessment, Petraeus is also considered likely to express optimism at the rate at which Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police units are being trained. Insiders say he is likely to spell out a phased transition of power in which Afghan forces will take over one province at a time.
By any assessment, Sunday was a bad day.
Eleven were killed in a series of bombings and ambushes across the east and south of Afghanistan, including five NATO servicemen, bringing the number to 31 of coalition members who’ve been killed this month.
A roadside bomb killed a soldier from Denmark, which has 700 troops stationed in the country. A British soldier was killed in an ambush while on patrol in Helmand province. The United Kingdom has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and has suffered more than 300 casualties. It was not clear late Sunday where the other three NATO soldiers were from.
Funerals of these five NATO soldiers are likely to take place just as the heads of state from the European allies prepare to travel to Lisbon and they will set a somber tone for the gathering.
“The Europeans want a date they can point to. They need it,” said Bruce Riedel, a former high-ranking CIA officer who was a key analyst brought in by the Obama administration to head its interagency review of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The review, which was completed in March 2009, called for the buildup of troops in Afghanistan, a surge that is now underway.
“War weariness is high in the U.S., for sure. But it is a lot higher in Europe, particularly in Germany and in eastern Europe,” Riedel said in an interview with GlobalPost. “Remember the Europeans went to war in Afghanistan to avoid Iraq. When body bags come home, that’s just not a good enough reason.”
Riedel went on to say that the Obama administration had no choice but to extend the commitment of large numbers of troops beyond the summer of 2011 and step back from the tone and tenor of its earlier vow.
“It would have been a strategic mistake, and it would be political suicide,” he said.
In July 2011, “The situation will be too fragile and too uncertain. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I don’t think I will be. We’ll see a symbolic drawdown perhaps, but not a substantial one.”
The Obama administration maintains that it has said all along that July 2011 would mark only the beginning of a withdrawal.
But clearly the administration is trying to move away from a posture of seeking to withdraw as quickly as possible. In the last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all cited the 2014 date in speeches.
In Australia, Gates told reporters at a diplomatic and security conference that the Taliban in 2011 were “going to be very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them.”