Days after President Barack Obama unveiled a new U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan, U.S. officials are stressing an eventual drawdown of American troops will be done gradually and in a manner that allows Afghan forces to assume security responsibilities.
President Obama's plan for Afghanistan calls for the rapid deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops and specifies July, 2011 as the starting point for reducing U.S. combat forces.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the withdrawal date on ABC's "This Week" program.
"I do not consider this an exit strategy, and I try to avoid using that term. This is a transition that is going to take place, and it is not an arbitrary date," Gates said.
Gates said the transition to Afghan control of security operations will begin in the country's more stable regions, and will be done gradually and as local conditions allow. In the interim, the Obama plan calls for training Afghan security forces on an accelerated schedule.
But many Republican lawmakers, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, oppose any target date for drawing down American troops.
"When conditions on the ground have decisively begun to change for the better, that is when our troops should start to return home with honor," McCain said. "Not one minute longer, not one minute sooner, and certainly not on some arbitrary date in July, 2011."
But the head of U.S. Central Command of the armed forces, General David Petraeus, disputes any characterization of the July, 2011 date as a predetermined launch of a swift U.S. retreat from Afghanistan. Petraeus, who engineered the 2007 U.S. military surge in Iraq, spoke on "Fox News Sunday."
"This [date] does not trigger a rush to the exits," Petraeus said. "It triggers a beginning of a transition to Afghan security forces, and over time a beginning of transition of tasks to Afghan governmental elements, as well."
In his speech to the nation last Tuesday, President Obama stated that U.S. commitment to the eight-year Afghan conflict cannot be open-ended, and that President Hamid Karzai must take steps to crack down on corruption and improve governance in his country.
While urging reform in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say the future of America's mission in the country will not be dictated by what Afghan officials accomplish or fail to do. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also appeared on "This Week".
"I cannot predict everything that is going to happen with President Karzai, but I think it is important to stress that this decision was based on what we believe is best for the United States," Clinton said. "And we have to have a realistic view of who we are working with in Afghanistan."
Congressional opposition to President Obama's Afghan war plan appears stronger among left-leaning members of his own Democratic Party than opposition Republicans.
Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin was noncommittal when asked if he would back the plan on "Fox News Sunday".
"I am skeptical as to whether 30,000 more troops will make a difference [in Afghanistan]," Durbin said. "But I would like to believe by July, 2011 that we will be in a position where we are going to see our troops really coming home."
President Obama says the goal in Afghanistan remains unchanged from eight years ago: to disrupt and dismantle terrorist groups and defeat violent extremists. Asked whether the United States knows the current hiding place of al-Qaida kingpin Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Gates said, "If we did, we would go get him."