"The president continues to want to be all things to all people on Afghanistan policy," said James Carafano, senior defense analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "Resurrecting the 2011 deadline in his State of the Union address was just pure politics. The reality is that the strategy is working, but that gains are reversible. Now would be the worst time to start a serious drawdown, and the White House knows it. It would be the ultimate act of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory."
Carafano and other experts said a more realistic timetable for taking significant numbers of troops out of Afghanistan is the 2014 date recently agreed to by NATO. And even that does not consider the types of contingencies common in war.
In Tuesday night's speech, Obama said that this year "we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home." An Afghan official, who spoke with The Washington Examiner after the speech, said the president was "too optimistic, too early."
"Those small gains can be reversed and the Taliban has been feeding off the drawdown date as a recruiting tool," the Afghan official said.
Another Afghan official, who lives in Kabul, said, "President [Hamid] Karzai is losing ground among the parliament and people. Afghanistan's security forces will not be ready to take control in 2014, I don't see how that will be possible."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Tuesday that Obama plans to expand Afghanistan's security forces to 70,000. "I would think it would be decided in the next few days," Levin told reporters. "All [the president] said is that it is under consideration, it's under review."
That would almost certainly extend the stay in Afghanistan for substantial numbers of American troops, analysts said.
A U.S. military official in Afghanistan said "it will take a lot more time to get the Afghan security forces on their own feet. We don't want to lose what we've already gained, but if we stick to these dates I'm afraid we will."
Obama said in his speech that "fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency," and al Qaeda's safe havens in Pakistan "are shrinking."
He added, "We have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: We will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you."
Carafano noted that "what we do know is for now we are moving in the right direction and that our actions are important not just for the future of Afghanistan, but Pakistan."
The need to keep nuclear power Pakistan outside the control of Islamic extremists raises the stakes in Afghanistan, and likely rules out a serious withdrawal of U.S. forces for years, experts said.
"We used to say you can't save Afghanistan without Pakistan; now we see we can't save Pakistan from the Islamists without winning in Afghanistan," Carafano said.
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.