U.S. troops patrol in Khowst province, Afghanistan. (photo: DVIDSHUB via Flickr)

Administration and military officials tell McClatchy that 2011 won’t be the beginning of the end in Afghanistan:

The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama’s pledge that he’d begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials have told McClatchy.

The new policy will be on display next week during a conference of NATO countries in Lisbon, Portugal, where the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the year when Afghan President Hamid Karzai once said Afghan troops could provide their own security, three senior officials told McClatchy, along with others speaking anonymously as a matter of policy.

The Pentagon also has decided not to announce specific dates for handing security responsibility for several Afghan provinces to local officials and instead intends to work out a more vague definition of transition when it meets with its NATO allies.

What a year ago had been touted as an extensive December review of the strategy now also will be less expansive and will offer no major changes in strategy, the officials told McClatchy. So far, the U.S. Central Command, the military division that oversees Afghanistan operations, hasn’t submitted any kind of withdrawal order for forces for the July deadline, two of those officials told McClatchy.

The shift already has begun privately and came in part because U.S. officials realized that conditions in Afghanistan were unlikely to allow a speedy withdrawal.

“Conditions in Afghanistan?” More like “conditions in DC.”  Having put Petraeus in charge of Afghanistan, the received beltway wisdom is that there’s no way Obama can pull out of Afghanistan and survive politically in 2012 if Petraeus wants to stay.  If he’d kept McCrystal, the thinking goes, Obama might have been able to blame the quagmire on him, throw up his hands and say “enough.” But he can’t do that with Petraeus.

So now that the 2010 election is over, and the Democrats are not worried about suppressing the hippie vote, it was only a matter of time before they’d start reassuring the Pentagon their budget won’t be cut in some crazy austerity measure burnishing Obama’s “national security” credentials by slow-walking this stuff.