The White House said Monday that July 2011 was a "non-negotiable" deadline for starting a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, while insisting that President Barack Obama and his top general in Kabul were on the same page.
The White House was quizzed about a seeming disconnect between the two after General David Petraeus said in an interview aired Sunday that he could seek a delay in the troop drawdown if conditions on the ground required it.
"I think the president has been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that it's conditions-based," he told NBC television's "Meet the Press" program.
"The president and I sat down in the Oval Office and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice."
But White House spokesman Bill Burton, speaking to reporters traveling on Obama's plane to Milwaukee, said the general's remarks had been taken out of context.
"I think that that is a very thinly sliced parsing of what he had to say. He said very specifically that that deadline stands and there is no daylight between the president or his commanders on the ground when it comes to July 2011," Burton said.
"As you saw with Iraq, when the president makes a commitment, he keeps it. And he intends to do that here as well," he said.
"Obviously the scope and rate of withdrawal will be conditions-based, but the date is not negotiable," Burton added.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Los Angeles Times in an interview, "There is no question in anybody's mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of 2011."
The deadline has come under fire from some Republicans who say it emboldens the Taliban by sending a message that the United States is not in the fight in Afghanistan for the long-term.
But others defend the deadline, which Obama coupled with a 30,000 troop surge, as needed to press Afghan leaders to move more quickly to assume responsibility for security in the country.