US Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected suggestions Sunday that US forces will move out of Afghanistan in large numbers in July of next year under a deadline set by President Barack Obama.
“That absolutely has not been decided,” Gates said in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
His comment was the latest indication that the magnitude of the drawdown, if not the deadline itself, is the subject of an intensifying internal debate at a time when a NATO-led campaign against the Taliban is going slower than expected.
Vice President Joe Biden, an early skeptic of the US military buildup in Afghanistan, was quoted as telling author Jonathan Alter recently: “In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel did not deny the Biden quote when asked about it, but, like Gates, said that the size of the drawdown would depend on conditions on the ground.
“Everybody knows there’s a firm date. And that firm date is a date (that) deals with the troops that are part of the surge, the additional 30,000,” he said in an interview with ABC “This Week.”
“What will be determined at that date or going into that date will be the scale and scope of that reduction,” he said.
General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, said last week that in setting the deadline for the surge last year, Obama’s message was “one of urgency — not that July 2011 is when we race for the exits, reach for the light switch and flip it off.”
Petraeus told lawmakers he would be duty-bound to recommend delaying the redeployment of forces if he thought it necessary.
In the same hearing, the Pentagon’s policy chief, Michelle Flournoy, said a responsible, conditions-based drawdown would depend on there being provinces ready to be transferred to Afghan control, and that there be Afghan combat forces capable of taking the lead.
Officials have said that training of Afghan security forces has gone slower than expected, in part because there are not enough trainers.
Gates said he had not personally heard Biden’s comments so would not take them at face value.
“The pace… with which we draw down and how many we draw down is going to be conditions-based,” he said.
He said there was “general agreement” that those conditions would be determined by the US commander, General Stanley McChrystal, the senior NATO representative in Kabul and the Afghan government.
McChrystal has said that even though a key campaign in Kandahar was taking longer than expected, it will be clear by December whether the surge and his counter-insurgency strategy were working.
Gates complained that “there’s a rush to judgment, frankly, that loses sight of the fact we are still in the middle of getting all of the right components into place and giving us a little time to have this work.”
But lawmakers from both parties have voiced increasing concern about the situation in Afghanistan.
Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that 40 percent of the country is controlled or contested by the Taliban, and the conflict is “metastasizing” with insurgent groups joining forces and sharing money.
“There is one, I think, irreversible truth: The Taliban is on a march,” she said.
“If you lose Afghanistan, Pakistan is the next step. And so what that bodes is nothing but ill because Pakistan is a nuclear (state).”
Senator Richard Lugar, an influential Republican, said saying “goodbye” to Afghanistan was not the solution.
“I think the president is going to have to redefine the plan, and when the proper time comes for that, he will have to make a decision,” he said.