The President in his Afghanistan speech set what appeared to be a soft, conditions-based, non-binding, open-ended agreement to begin a “transition” of forces from Afghanistan starting in July 2011. Many have interpreted this date in different ways, with some liberals clinging to it as a timetable and Republicans denouncing it for the same reason. But while top Administration officials like the Secretary of Defense and others have tried to put all kinds of hedges into that July 2011 date, the President himself said it was firm.

It was a point of contention at the White House briefing today – I asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs if senators were incorrect calling the date a “target.”

After the briefing, Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in – there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It’s etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel.

Lindsey Graham will not be happy. Neither will John McCain – and a whole lot of other Republicans who believe any kind of time line means “advantage: enemy.”

Keep in mind that the PACE of the withdrawal will still depend on conditions on the ground – which means it could be a very small number of troops if things are not going well.

That’s exactly right – the “beginning of the end” could be a prelude of years upon years of gradual, conditions-based withdrawal. In fact, the controversy already stirred by this comment is a good reason to believe that it won’t amount to much of anything in the long run.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports today that an additional 3,000-5,000 troops – roughly a brigade – could be on their way to Afghanistan in addition to the 30,000, at the discretion of the Defense Secretary. An escalation of the escalation.