This pre-Lisbon Conference video from my favorite Danish politician, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, glides past an important point, as does this New York Times piece. Yes, NATO will meet next week to build political consensus across the alliance for the post-2011 phase of “gradually” handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan forces. “The aim is for Afghan forces to be in the lead, countrywide, of security operations by the end of 2014,” Rasmussen tells us. Notice that doesn’t mean we’ll be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

On a Tuesday conference call, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who’s in charge of the NATO training effort, was explicit about what the “end of 2014″ — hmm — does and doesn’t mean. “It doesn’t mean that there will still not be coalition forces here in support of them,” Caldwell said, “but the primary lead for security in this country must have been established with the Afghan security forces in the lead by the end of 2014.”

So 2014 is the new July 2011. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the caveats and the asterisks that the Obama administration and NATO want to place onto the dates, and understand that neither date heralds the End Of The War. But there’s a word for politicians who need you to listen carefully to their statements to grasp the full depth of their meanings: liars. They’re putting out a line that suggests on its face that the war will wind down or end when they’re actually promising no such thing. Leaving the impression that there are endpoints for the war is an abuse of the public trust.

Personally, I can understand and sympathize with a staggered approach to deescalating the war. And I used to think that July 2011 was a policy date that reflected more subtlety than dishonesty. But to do essentially the same thing with 2014 paints the whole policy in a different and harsher light. And the reason for this, uh, excess of subtlety is to deliver different messages to different audiences: to the Afghans and Pakistanis and the insurgents and terrorists, it’s that we’re staying; and to the American public, it’s that we’re going. At the very minimum, that suggests the policy still isn’t well thought-out. The line between bet-hedging and incoherence is as fine as the one between subtlety and dishonesty.