The game has changed in Afghanistan since President Obama last year laid out his plan to tame the Taliban and start withdrawing troops. While U.S. military officials boast of significant gains in the militants' southern strongholds in recent months thanks in large part to the President's troop surge, they caution that it won't be possible to fully gauge the impact until fighting picks up again in the spring. And even in the best-case scenario, it will still take at least four more years to complete a full handover to Afghan security forces. So as the Obama Administration this week undertakes the review of Afghan strategy promised 12 months ago, the White House — in deference to the military's view that more time is needed — has signaled that no major changes are under consideration. This week's assessment of the state of the war in Afghanistan has become little more than a formality. "[The review] is definitely not as significant as it was, which is good for the Department of Defense," says a senior U.S. officer serving in Afghanistan.
The writing has been on the wall for months. When the President told West Point cadets last December that he was deploying 30,000 extra troops to the conflict, he made clear that he believed he was raising the force level in order to create conditions to hasten U.S. withdrawal. But shortly after the speech, Administration and military officials began to downplay the July 2011 date Obama had named for the beginning of that drawdown.