WASHINGTON — 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.
State Department official Vikram Singh said the U.S. would start redeploying its forces in July 2011 "based on conditions on the ground." He insisted that the administration isn't making a distinction between the forces that are already in Afghanistan and the ones that are coming.
"Either you're starting to draw down or you're not," he said.
However, a senior administration official, who requested anonymity as a matter of policy, said the drawdown date applies "primarily" to the surge troops.
"It is hard to envision that conditions will be such that will allow for a further withdrawal beyond that," the official said.
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.
U.S. lawmakers seeking clarity on the deadline, which Obama announced in his Tuesday evening speech, tried Thursday to pin down his top national security aides as they appeared for a second day before congressional committees to defend his decision to deploy thousands more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan next year.
"We need to be honest with the American people. Can any of you tell me that after July (2011) that we will have tens of thousands of troops years after that date?" Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I think that the president and we have been clear that July 2011 is the beginning of a process of drawing down in Afghanistan," Gates replied.
Obama "has not put deadlines in terms of when our troops will all be out, but clearly he sees . . . July 2011 . . . (as) an inflection point where we begin to drawn down those forces in Afghanistan . . . with a view to transferring this responsibility to the Afghans over a period of probably two or three years," he added.
Asked the same question, Clinton said that the timeline Gates described was in sync with one set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said in his Nov. 19 inaugural speech that he foresaw Afghan forces taking control of key areas within three years and the entire country within five.
"I would believe that we would be able to start the transition as planned in 2011," Clinton said. "We also know there will be probably for the foreseeable future a drawdown and transfer out of (U.S.) combat troops, but a request for continuing (American) logistical support for the Afghan security force."
The administration's statements on Capitol Hill, which suggested that all U.S. combat forces could be out of Afghanistan by 2014, contradicted what officials of countries partnered with the U.S. in Afghanistan said were assurances they were given in briefings by U.S. officials ahead of Obama's speech.
These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy, said that U.S. officials have told them that the July 2011 deadline applies only to the additional U.S. soldiers and Marines going next year, and not to the 68,000-strong American contingent that's now deployed mostly in insurgency-wracked southern and eastern Afghanistan.
"The emphasis on drawdown is for domestic consumption, to appeal to (Obama's) liberal constituency at home," said a senior official from a key allied nation. "We were told in no uncertain terms that there will be no withdrawal."
"American soldiers are not going anywhere," said a high-ranking security official from another U.S.-allied country.
U.S. allies are frustrated by how the deadline has overshadowed other aspects of Obama's policy speech, with no thought apparently given in Washington to how badly it would play in the region.
Western diplomats in South Asia said the deadline has sent the wrong signals about U.S. staying power to the Taliban, allied insurgents and al Qaida, as well as to the publics in countries such as Pakistan, which is battling its own Islamist uprising.
Many Pakistanis already opposed cooperation the U.S., which they think "betrayed" them by turning its back on the region after defeating the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a view reinforced by the widespread interpretation of Obama's July 2011 deadline.
The actual strategy, as explained by U.S. briefers to allied officials, was of a buildup beginning early next year and lasting through mid-2011 that would mimic the U.S. troop surge into Iraq, which began in 2007 and lasted about 15 months.
U.S. military and civilian leaders, the allied officials said, recognized that in 18 months, the U.S. military can only reverse the tide of the war in Afghanistan, and that a large American presence will be required long after that.
In those 18 months, with help from Pakistan, the hope is that enough gains can be made against the Taliban and other groups that the insurgents could be compelled to come to the negotiating table and their beliefs and violence moderated.
"We have been assured by America that they do not intend to withdraw troops from Afghanistan until the situation is stabilized," said a diplomat in an allied country, who couldn't be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue. "They are not quitting Afghanistan."
(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad. Landay reported from Washington.)
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