WASHINGTON – The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, scheduled to begin in July 2011, will “probably” take two or three years, Defense Secretary Robert 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.
“They are not all going to be there in six months,” a senior military official said. The current thinking, the official said, is that the Pentagon will be able to push about 20,000 to 25,000 troops into the country by late summer, but that the final brigade – about 5,000 troops – will probably not arrive until early fall.
New details fleshed out the revamped strategy Obama outlined Tuesday night as Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress on the plan for a second day.
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.”
In Kabul on Thursday, U.S. officials sought to assure anxious Afghan leaders that despite the withdrawal deadline, Afghanistan will not be abandoned. Speaking with Afghan legislators, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander, insisted that the United States will ensure Afghan forces are ready to provide security before there are any meaningful reductions in the U.S. presence.
Still, Obama’s speech has touched a nerve in Afghanistan, where large segments of the population remain deeply scarred by the U.S. decision to disengage soon after the Soviet Union pulled out its troops in 1989. The end of the proxy war between two superpowers spawned a civil war marked by some of the most intense combat seen in more than three decades of nonstop conflict in Afghanistan.