White House Chorus: We Will Occupy South Asia for 'Long Time'
No Firm Plans for a US Exit in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON - 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."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Gates said that under the plan, 100,000 American troops would be in Afghanistan in July 2011, and "some handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time."
In his prime-time address at West Point on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said that even as he planned to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, his administration would "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."
The president's speech set off alarms inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, as some officials worried about an American pullout before Afghan troops were ready to fight the Taliban on their own. It also set off a barrage of criticism from Republicans that the president was setting an arbitrary withdrawal date that would embolden Taliban insurgents to wait the Americans out.
On Sunday, the administration's top civilian and military officials marched in lockstep in insisting that July 2011 was just the beginning, not the end, of a lengthy process. That date, General Jones said, is a "ramp" rather than a "cliff."
As they seek to explain the new war strategy, administration officials face the task of calibrating the message about America's commitments in Afghanistan to different audiences, foreign and domestic, each of whom wants to hear different things.
During weeks of wrenching internal debate, administration officials decided on the July 2011 benchmark in part to send a signal to Afghanistan's government that the clock was ticking for Afghan troops to take a greater role against the Taliban. The message was intended equally for domestic consumption: assuring skeptical Democratic lawmakers and many Americans that the United States military presence in Afghanistan was not open-ended.
But the White House has also faced sharp criticism from Republicans, who said it made little military sense to set a withdrawal date 18 months in the future because it handed the American strategy to the enemy.
The announcement of the July 2011 benchmark was also greeted with concern during private conversations among American officials and their counterparts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and administration officials in recent days have acknowledged that they were surprised by the intensity of the anxiety among Afghan and Pakistani officials that the United States would beat a hasty retreat from the region.
Since the White House strategy was announced, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has publicly pledged to work with the United States to bolster Afghan forces. But he asked for patience and indicated that his country's military might not be ready in 18 months to take responsibility from American troops.
During his recent inaugural address, Mr. Karzai said that Afghan forces would be able to take charge of securing Afghan cities within three years, and could take responsibility for the rest of the country within five years.
So officials try a balancing act as they sell the Afghan strategy. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of United States Central Command, said Sunday that there was a natural "tension" between a message of resolve and the message of impatience after eight years of war. But he said the twin messages were not mutually exclusive.
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," General Petraeus said that the Obama administration was not planning a "rush to the exits" in Afghanistan, and that depending on the security conditions there could be tens of thousands of American troops in Afghanistan for several years.
Both Mr. Gates and General Petraeus also have the job of easing concerns among military commanders about rigid withdrawal timetables. Mr. Gates has said in public that he opposed firm timelines, and during the administration's Afghanistan strategy review he insisted that any decisions about troop withdrawals be based on security conditions inside the country.
Administration officials on Sunday were also asked about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Qaeda network and the reason that the United States entered the war in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mr. Gates said it had been "years" since the United States had had reliable intelligence about Mr. bin Laden, but he said it was still the assumption of American intelligence agencies that he was hiding in North Waziristan, in Pakistan. General Jones said that Mr. bin Laden was believed to cross the border into Afghanistan occasionally, but he gave no further details about American assessments of his location.