You have to read carefully to recognize the change in policy here, but it’s a doozy. From the very beginning of The One’s surge last year, July 2011 has been held out as a set-in-stone date on which withdrawal will begin. Even at the time, they were playing games with that: The date was fixed but the number of troops to be withdrawn was conditions-based, so in theory Obama could keep his pledge by pulling out 50,000 troops next summer — or, if need be, just one platoon. As White House spokesman Tommy Vietor is quick to point out to McClatchy, the July 2011 date remains fixed. But clearly, while they were hoping for a big drawdown, the number of troops leaving is now going to be closer to platoon scale than to 50,000.

Another three years.

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…

Another official said the administration also realized in contacts with Pakistani officials that the Pakistanis had concluded wrongly that July 2011 would mark the beginning of the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

That perception, one Pentagon adviser said, has convinced Pakistan’s military — which is key to preventing Taliban sympathizers from infiltrating Afghanistan — to continue to press for a political settlement instead of military action [against jihadis in the tribal areas].

In other words, after a year of hawks screaming at them that telegraphing a major withdrawal next year will only encourage the Taliban and their Pakistani sugar daddy to hold out and play for time, the White House has realized … yeah, they’re holding out and playing for time. New plan, then: Try to appease doves by insisting that everyone will be out by 2014 while communicating to jihadis that they’d better be ready to get pounded for four more years — unless they come to the bargaining table soon. I wrote a few weeks ago about Petraeus’s new shoot-and-talk strategy, aimed at bludgeoning the Taliban until they beg for mercy and demand a peace deal, and it’s only intensified since then. Danger Room notes today that NATO executed more than 1,000 airstrikes inside Afghanistan last month, and the White House is pushing to expand the CIA’s role in the tribal areas of Pakistan, possibly involving the use of paramilitary forces. Whether it’s working or not is completely unclear to me, though, given how media reports tend to conflict. On the one hand, we hear that U.S. troops are kicking ass and taking names, on the other hand we hear that they haven’t made much headway. On the one hand, we hear that talks between Karzai and the Taliban are under way and that Pakistan urgently wants a place at the table, on the other hand we hear that they’re nonsense or basically insignificant. Clearly there are some talks going on and clearly Karzai and NATO would like to see something meaningful come from them — and just as clearly, there’s no reason to believe that the Taliban would honor any promises made. Which, I guess, is why Petraeus is so eager to hammer them into submission soon notwithstanding the new three-year timeline: If they can strike a deal quickly, with U.S. troops guaranteed to remain in the field until 2014 to keep an eye on the Taliban while they adjust to “peace,” maybe the inertia of stability will make jihadis less likely to revolt once we’re gone.

McClatchy notes that having the GOP take back the House will help Obama here since they’re less likely to pressure him on withdrawal, but of course it also means the smaller, more liberal Democratic caucus is now off the hook for defense spending and can start shrieking in earnest about pulling out. Between that and the fact that he’s now asking them to gag on a new three-year deadline, he’s going to catch hell from his base. Yet another reason to think that the mythical primary challenge might yet materalize?