8 p.m. ET all around the dial. Believe it or not, he was still “tinkering” with his speech (and the troop levels?) as recently as an hour ago, but there is good news to report regarding that timetable. Behold the loophole:

“The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 – the fastest pace possible – so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”

“Because this is an international effort, I have asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we are confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead. Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. Now, we must come together to end this war successfully. For what’s at stake is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility – what’s at stake is the security of our Allies, and the common security of the world.”

“Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”

If the first new troops are cycling in next year and the first old troops are cycling out by July 2011, isn’t that less a three-year commitment than a one-year commitment? Watch to see if he offers any projections for how many troops will be there circa 2012 or 2013; just because withdrawal will begin in 18 months to appease his base doesn’t mean it’ll proceed quickly. Either way, I still don’t see how the timetable helps him politically. He’ll benefit a little from starting the pullout before the next presidential campaign, but if the mission’s failed by then and the Taliban’s advancing on Kabul, pulling out won’t save him.

Something else to watch for: How forcefully will Obama make the moral case for staying? Time’s right that doing so would boost public support, but it would also paint him into a corner insofar as he can’t disavow that logic later if conditions deteriorate. If we’re there to protect Afghan women, how can we leave so long as they continue to be threatened by the Taliban? We can’t, which is why The One won’t do much more than pay lip service to humanitarian concerns. The last thing he wants is to be forced into Hillary-esque jawdroppers like this come 2012.

While we wait, via Gabriel Malor, here’s the White House’s resident comic relief lapsing into total self-parody by once again overusing their favorite self-flattering rhetorical crutch.