Gates: July 2011 would only be "beginning" of drawdown

Robert Gates tried again to clarify what Obama meant by his 2011 deadline on the war in Afghanistan, but in the process watered it down even further.  He told Congress yesterday that the drawdown of troops would only begin in July 2011, but that US troops would take as long as three years to leave Afghanistan once ordered out — assuming, of course, that they are ordered to begin leaving in summer of 2011, which Gates said may or may not happen.  And the Pentagon also “clarified” that the additional troops will take longer to get in place than Obama implied:

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, scheduled to begin in July 2011, will “probably” take two or three years, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday, although he added that “there are no deadlines in terms of when our troops will all be out.”

The Pentagon, meanwhile, quietly acknowledged slippage on the front end of the 30,000-troop deployment that President Obama authorized for the first half of 2010. …

In an opening statement and in comments at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gates tried to clarify his response to sharp questioning the day before on whether the deadline to begin withdrawal was as hard and fast as Obama had appeared to make it.

“July 2011, the time at which the president said the United States will begin to draw down our forces, will be the beginning of a process,” Gates said. “But the pace and character of that drawdown, which districts and provinces are turned over and when, will be determined by conditions on the ground. It will be a gradual but inexorable process.”

Those provinces and districts, a senior Pentagon official said, are likely to be areas that already are relatively peaceful, adding, “There are places we could transfer now.”

The official described the deployment curve as beginning at a baseline of the 68,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, rising at a 45-degree angle to 100,000, then continuing horizontally until July 2011 before beginning to slope back down. The fall “could be steep if everything is hunky-dory,” he said, but “it could be much more elongated.”

Elongated?  That sounds like a big loophole in the deadline, doesn’t it?  In fact, that sounds a lot like George Bush’s plan for the Iraq surge, which makes sense.  After all, that plan worked, and it allowed the US to move its forces around as each province became secure enough for the Iraqi Army to maintain. Instead of being elongated, the success of the surge in 2007-8 allowed for steeper slopes of drawdowns, especially for Marines in western Iraq.

Of course, the Bush plan deliberately excluded an element in the Obama surge for Afghanistan: a published timetable.  While the enemy in Iraq certainly understood that Bush had tremendous political opposition to his escalation and that the upcoming election could impact the staying power of the US on that front, they had no fixed date around which to plan, and with which to intimidate locals into acquiescence.

Gates seems to realize that in his testimony, as does this Pentagon official on background.  They’re talking about July 2011 as a decision point, not as a fixed timetable for the beginning of a withdrawal.  Is that different than what Obama promised in his Tuesday speech?

Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.

It’s certainly less clear.  The definition of “conditions on the ground” seems to be the big issue.  If conditions on the ground don’t merit a withdrawal, will Obama still insist on withdrawing?  He implied that the answer was yes, while Gates and the Pentagon appear to say no.  This is one of the reasons why it’s best not to publish arbitrary deadlines for winning wars in the first place.

Update: McClatchy’s confused, too:

The Obama administration is giving different explanations of its July 2011 deadline for the start of an Afghanistan troop withdrawal, assuring foreign officials that it applies only to the 30,000 to 35,000 additional U.S. troops that President Barack Obama is sending next year, but suggesting to Congress that it covers all U.S. forces.

The conflicting versions suggest that the administration is trying to reassure U.S. allies in the region and elsewhere that the U.S. won’t cut and run, while telling a concerned American public, Congress and Democratic Party that it has an exit strategy. …

The deadline has triggered Republican charges that the Taliban-led insurgents will be encouraged to intensify the war while running out the clock on the U.S. military presence. It also has sowed dismay in the region, especially among Pakistani officials, who are concerned that the U.S. will walk away from Afghanistan, as it did after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and set the stage for the Taliban’s emergence.