US drawdown in 2011 will be ‘limited’: Gates
Despite growing clamor against the war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday large numbers of US troops will remain after a “limited” July 2011 drawdown.
Despite mounting casualties and public doubts, Gates said the US-led force was making headway in the war and Taliban insurgents would not be able to wait out American forces — as a major troop withdrawal was not on the horizon.
“I think we need to re-emphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011,” said Gates, referring to a deadline set by President Barack Obama for the start of a withdrawal.
“My personal opinion is that drawdowns early on will be of fairly limited numbers,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”
“And as we are successful, we’ll probably accelerate.”
Defending the US war effort, President Barack Obama meanwhile said Washington’s goals in the war were “fairly modest” and realistic.
In an interview with CBS’s “Early Show” broadcast on Sunday, Obama said no one expected the US-led effort to turn Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy.
“What we’re looking to do is difficult, very difficult, but it’s a fairly modest goal, which is, don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region; don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the US homeland with impunity.
“That can be accomplished,” he said. “We can stabilize Afghanistan sufficiently and we can get enough cooperation from Pakistan that we are not magnifying the threat against the homeland.”
A US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 ousted the Islamic extremist Taliban regime, accused of harboring Osama bin Laden — the chief suspect for the September 11 attacks on America — and leaders of his Al-Qaeda network.
But in almost nine years since, a Taliban insurgency against President Hamid Karzai’s Western-backed government has become increasingly emboldened despite the presence now of almost 150,000 allied troops.
Asked if the Taliban could simply “run out the clock” until the mid-2011 target, Gates said that he would “welcome that, because we will be there in the 19th month, and we will be there with a lot of troops.”
He acknowledged the rising death toll among US and NATO troops but said improvements in security, economic life and local government in the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces were concrete signs of progress.
“It’s going to take some time. It’s going to be tough. We’re going to take casualties,” said Gates.
“We have warned about this for months, that this summer would be very difficult for us. But I think there are tangible signs that this approach is working, this strategy is working.”
His comments echoed recent remarks by Vice President Joe Biden, who said that as few as 2,000 troops might withdraw after the July 2011 deadline.
But the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, took a different view of the drawdown, saying Americans wanted to see a more significant troop withdrawal.
“Well, I hope it is more than that,” Pelosi told ABC, referring to the 2,000 number offered by Biden. “I know it’s not going to be turn out the lights and let’s all go home on one day.”
Obama’s fellow Democrats in Congress are increasingly anxious about the US role in Afghanistan, with 102 members recently breaking ranks and voting against funding for the nearly nine-year-old war.
The death toll for US troops rose to 66 in July, making it the deadliest month yet for American forces.