When is a timeline not really a timeline? When the President says so. See GITMO, Healthcare, etc…now add Afghanistan.

At a press conference today, President Obama said of his Afghanistan withdrawal timeline, “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. We said we’d begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government to take more and more responsibility.” Good news for folks who think we ought to fight our wars to win? Guess again.

If the start date for the withdrawal is not such a big deal after all, then why did the President announce one to begin with? Easy. The answer is that it was for domestic political consumption—an implicit promise to his political supporters that Afghanistan would be off the table by the time it came to gear up for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Here is the problem, Mr. President. The enemy gets a vote—and they vote early and often. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, from villages to terrorist hideouts, the message was thatAmericans lack the stomach to stick it out till the job is done. Why would the Pakistani Taliban dispatch a terrorist to kill Americans in Times Square if they didn’t think they could break the back of American resolve?

Winning in Afghanistan is in the vital interests of the United States. We don’t secure vital interests by token efforts, suggesting it is okay to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way for a year—but then we have to take our ball and go home.

No right-thinking strategist would sign up for an open ended commitment to keep troops in Afghanistan—but timelines need to be set based on the situation on the ground, not the political calendar in Washington. You don’t get your allies to stand shoulder to shoulder with you by threatening to abandon them.

If the President really wants to help Gen. Petraeus win the war, he can publicly state “forget the timeline, we will start to bring the troops home when conditions are right.” He could also pledge to give Gen. Petraeus whatever he needs to get the job done.