Rasmussen, Karzai(To left, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.)

On Saturday, at the NATO summit in Lisbon, officials announced 2014 as the target date for withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan. Afghanistan is already America’s longest war. As of next Saturday, at nine years and 50 days, it will also have exceeded the length of the Soviet’s war in Afghanistan. In 2014, this will have been a 13-year war.

Eleven years sounds like a long time, but the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will almost certainly be even longer. While NATO secretary general, Anders Rasmussen framed 2014 as the end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan, Obama made sure to refer to 2014 as a target date rather than a deadline. The withdrawal of U.S. forces would, he noted, depend on the readiness of Afghan forces to take responsibility for their country’s security.

Writing for Politico, Josh Gerstein described the NATO announcement as little more than spin. It “seemed intended to generate headlines or at least a public perception of a plan for withdrawal.”

In all likelihood, that media strategy will continue well into the future, and will become especially apparent when we arrive at previously announced target dates. In July 2011, we can expect the cameras to be rolling when the official drawdown of soldiers begins. As in Iraq in 2010, in Afghanistan in 2014, we can expect the president to announce the formal end of America’s combat mission and applaud the soldiers for a job well done. As in Iraq, the official end of the combat mission in Afghanistan will not mean the removal of all troops, but rather the continued presence of thousands of soldiers serving as advisors and trainers. And as in Iraq, the line between advisor and combat soldier will continue to be murky.

In the end, press conferences about Afghanistan tell us much more about the official media strategy than they do about the administration’s actual plans. Currently, as Nick Turse of TomDispatch has reported, the U.S. has over 400 military bases in Afghanistan and plans for a mega-embassy, the largest in the world. The administration would not embark on a building boom of this scope unless it had plans to be there for a long, long time.

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