In a second day of testimony on Capitol Hill, key Obama administration officials said Thursday that the July 2011 date President Barack Obama set for beginning a drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will depend on the progress made. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and military Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen testified before two congressional panels.
In his Tuesday night speech, President Obama stressed the need to give Afghanistan's government, army and police time to build up their ability to defend against Taliban advances.
The top officials who will implement that strategy say they believe the president is sincere in his intention to stick to the July 2011 date.
But they also say that conditions - including security in key provinces, the pace of training and equipping Afghan forces, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's ability to eliminate corruption and restore credibility - will determine how rapidly a U.S. withdrawal occurs.
Reminding lawmakers that he has always opposed strict deadlines for completing U.S. troop withdrawals, Secretary Gates offered this interpretation of the president's thinking.
"The date of July 2011 to begin thinning our forces and transitioning the security responsibilities to the Afghans is a firm date that the president has established," Gates said. "But the pace of that draw down, the location of the drawdown and so on will be conditions-based, and to use his words, a 'responsible draw down' as we have done in Iraq."
Gates again described the process as sending two major messages - one, an ongoing U.S. commitment symbolized up by the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. troops; the other, a signal of urgency with a date by which Afghans must begin shouldering more security responsibilities.
Admiral Mullen dismissed suggestions by critics that July 2011 was chosen arbitrarily. He said, it is a target that U.S. commanders and war planners reached, based on assessments of conditions on the ground.
"It is not an arbitrary date. It is the third summer, if you will, that the [U.S.] Marines will be in [Afghanistan's southern] Helmand [province]," Mullen said. "And we will have a clear indication from three seasons, if you will, of the heart of the fighting season there, which way this is going."
Admiral Mullen and Secretaries Gates and Clinton faced tough questions from lawmakers on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.
Saying he does not see a comprehensive policy for Afghanistan or a clear Pakistan strategy, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez had this exchange with Secretary Clinton:
"Can any of you tell this committee that, in fact, after July 2011, we won't have tens of thousands of troops [in Afghanistan] for years after that date?" asked Senator Menendez.
"Well Senator, I can tell you what the intention is, and the intention is . . ." Secretart if State Hillary Clinton responded.
"Madame Secretary, I don't want to hear what the intention is," Menendez interrupted. "I want to know can you tell the committee that there won't be tens of thousands troops after July 2011 for years after that?"
Clinton then described what she called a "convergence" between U.S. objectives and statements by President Karzai that Afghans will be able to shoulder security responsibilities in key areas within three years, and within five years for the entire country.
All three officials said that the actual number of U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan in the coming months would likely be higher than 30,000, when support forces are taken into account.
Admiral Mullen said the military and the administration will conduct a major review in about one year to assess what changes might be needed.
Republicans lawmakers such as Senator Johnny Isakson questioned President Obama's decision to set a date for beginning the withdrawal process, saying it provides an advantage to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
"This July 2011 date, if they interpret it as an end game for us, it gives them some opportunity," Isakson said.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrat John Kerry said that Pakistan must be the real focus of U.S. concerns, while Republican Senator Richard Lugar questioned what the Obama administration is doing to ensure Pakistan's cooperation as part of President Obama's overall strategy.
"We have largely expelled al-Qaida from Afghanistan. Today, it is the presence of al-Qaida in Pakistan - its direct ties to and support from the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the perils of an unstable nuclear-armed Pakistan that drive our mission," Senator John Kerry said.
"On one side, we are going to [put] in place additional troops dealing with these 11 provinces in Afghanistan. But what is not clear is precisely what is going to happen in Pakistan in this alliance of the two of us - the U.S. and Pakistan in this case," noted Senator Richard Lugar.
During the House Armed Services Committee hearing, Democrat John Spratt questioned the true cost of the troop buildup, now estimated to be
between $30 billion and $35 billion.
The Obama administration is expected to send a supplemental request to Congress for additional funds to support operations in Afghanistan. This would include military needs and money to pay for the civilian component of the president's plan.