A contradiction in stated Afghanistan War goals has emerged at the highest levels of American government.

While President Barack Obama has indicated he would like US troops to begin leaving Afghanistan in 2011, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton point out there is no deadline or exit strategy.

"We're not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We're talking about something that will take place over a period of time," Gates told Meet the Press. "We will have 100,000 troops there. And they are not leaving in July of 2011. Some handful or some small number or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time."

Clinton added that in 2011 the military would begin what she called "a transition."

"We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline," she said. "You know, we're gonna be out of Iraq. We have a firm deadline, because the Iraqis believe that they can assume and will assume responsibility for their own future. We want the Afghans to feel the same sense of urgency. We want them to actually make good on what President Karzai said in his inaugural speech, which is that by five years from now they'll have total control for their defense."

The New York Times added Monday:

The Obama administration sent a forceful public message Sunday that American military forces could remain in Afghanistan for a long time, seeking to blunt criticism that President Obama had sent the wrong signal in his war-strategy speech last week by projecting July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal.

In a flurry of coordinated television interviews, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials said that any troop pullout beginning in July 2011 would be slow and that the Americans would only then be starting to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces under Mr. Obama’s new plan.

The television appearances by the senior members of Mr. Obama’s war council seemed to be part of a focused and determined effort to ease concerns about the president’s emphasis on setting a date for reducing America’s presence in Afghanistan after more than eight years of war.

“We have strategic interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re going to be in the region for a long time.”

Echoing General Jones, Mr. Gates played down the significance of the July 2011 target date.

“There isn’t a deadline,” Mr. Gates said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “What we have is a specific date on which we will begin transferring responsibility for security district by district, province by province in Afghanistan, to the Afghans.”

This video is from NBC's Meet the Press, broadcast Dec. 6, 2009.

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