Six days after President Obama formally announced his troop surge in Afghanistan, I'm still trying to figure out whether his stated date for the start of military withdrawals is firm or fictional, whether it applies to all troops or just the surge troops - and, indeed, whether all the timetable talk is just intended to distract us from the very real prospects of a long-term military presence.

Various Obama officials, while seeking to clarify these issues, have actually sowed more confusion by sending mixed signals. They started doing it last Wednesday, and they sustained it right through the Sunday talk shows.

Talk about your fog of war: On Wednesday, Chip Reid of CBS News asked Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs to get presidential clarification as to whether July '11, the date for the start of troop pullouts, was real or merely aspirational. Gibbs checked with Obama and relayed Obama's response. Reid subsequently reported that this date "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."

Yet, that same day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said something very different. Gstes (who in private had reportedly opposed setting any timetables) told a Senate panel that the July '11 date was quite fungible, that the administration would need to determine in advance "whether or not we can begin that transition in July."

And on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Capitol Hill that "I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving." And check out the loopholes and caveats in this passage: "I would believe that we would be able to start the transition as planned in 2011. We also know there will be probably for the foreseeable future a drawdown and transfer out of combat troops, but a request for continuing (American) logistical support for the Afghan security force."

(Translation, as best I can manage: The 2011 start-of-withdrawal date is not etched in stone at all; rather, Clinton thinks we "would be able" to meet it. And if the Afghans keep needing "logistical support," the pullout pace could slow to a trickle "for the foreseeable future.")

Indeed, a senior official from an allied nation, speaking on background to McClatchy Newspapers, said Thursday that, based on the briefings that allies have received from Obama officials, "The emphasis on drawdown is for domestic consumption, to appeal to (Obama's) liberal constituency at home. We were told in no uncertain terms that there will be no withdrawal."

Meanwhile, it's not clear whether the July '11 drawdown date (whether firm or fanciful) would mark the start of withdrawing all U.S. troops - or merely the 30,000 newly-dispatched troops. A State Department spokesman reportedly stated on Thursday that the drawdown date would cover all the troops, but a senior administration official told McClatchy that the date "primarily" covers only the surge troops; as he explained, "It is hard to envision that conditions will be such that will allow for a further withdrawal beyond that."

Clinton and Gates hedged some more on the Sunday talk shows. Clinton told NBC: "We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline. What we're talking about is an assessment that, in January 2011, we can begin a transition." And Gates told NBC that we may be talking about a distant horizon: "We're talking about something that will take place over a period of time." (What is "a period time?" Two years? Five? Ten?)

But then Gates gave the game away, signaling in essence that we're in for a far longer haul than Obama seemed to imply in his speech. Gates told NBC: "We will have a significant - we will have 100,000 forces, troops, there. And they are not leaving in July of 2011. Some handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions will permit, will begin to withdraw at that time."

In translation: "Some handful" will come home in the summer of '11, but the rest will have to stay, dependent upon the prevailing "conditions" (which probably won't be much different from today's conditions), and dependent upon the Afghanis' likely ongoing need for "logistical support" (as Clinton put it).

As national security advisor James Jones said yesterday on CNN, "we are not leaving Afghanistan. We're here to make sure the Afghans succeed." And as General David Petraeus told Fox News yesterday, "There's no timeline, no ramp, nothing like that."

So I'm still not clear how all these remarks square with Obama's statement last Tuesday night that "our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended, because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own." The truth is, they don't; in the words of former State and Defense official Richard Haas, speaking yesterday on ABC News, "Wars are always easier to get into than out of."

But this much is clear: Even though Obama has bought himself a little time, this timetable dispute (which is really a metaphor for the broader debate over war aims)will be revisited with a vengeance 18 months from now - just as he's starting to gear up for re-election. That much, at least, we can etch in stone.