If I were The One, I’d be angrier about this than about what Team McChrystal pulled a few months ago. Not that what Conway’s saying is surprising — this has always been the chief hawkish criticism of the July 2011 timetable — but to have one of your own top brass question the strategy publicly, especially in terms this explosive, is mind-boggling.

I wonder if Conway’s willing to assume the risk of a reprimand here because he feels that strongly about the policy or because he’s retiring in a few months anyway and wants to do a favor for other officers who’d love to make this point but have too much to lose in doing so.

“We know the president was talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments on July 2011,” Gen. James Conway told reporters on Tuesday. “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance….In fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’”

Conway, who recently returned from a trip to the region, said he expected Marines to remain on the ground in southern Afghanistan, the traditional stronghold for the Taliban, well after July 2011, though he himself is set to retire in the fall.

“I certainly believe that some American units somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghanistan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines,” he said.

The qualifier about O dealing with multiple audiences in setting the timetable makes me think there are caveats to what Conway said that didn’t make the Journal’s cut. For example, did he go on to say something like, “But we’re willing to risk the short-term ‘sustenance’ to the enemy in order to reassure Afghans that the occupation won’t last forever, which we think will galvanize support for our offensive against the Taliban this fall”? That would turn this into a case of Conway defending the strategy notwithstanding its drawbacks. Although … those are some drawbacks.

A serious question: Assuming the Taliban and their masters in Pakistani intel have access to western media, they surely have some sense that the war is becoming unpopular in America. In which case, how important is the July 2011 deadline, really, in boosting their morale? Even if O rescinded the deadline tomorrow, electoral politics and public opinion are such that both parties will be calling for drawdowns before 2012. We’ve already had no less a conservative stalwart than Ann Coulter publicly question why we’re still there, and after all, the Taliban’s “held out” for nine years already. What reason is there to think they’d throw in the towel if Obama gave up on his timetable when the elections guarantee some sort of limited withdrawal anyway?