Top Obama administration officials and its military advisers today again tried to dampen criticism of the public timetable President Obama described this week for beginning to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, saying variously the 2011 target date "is not a cliff, it's a ramp" and it does not amount to triggering "a rush to the exits" or a "drop dead deadline."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones and Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, all took to the Sunday talk shows to expand on the flexibility the administration would show when it came to the pace of the withdrawal after an 18 month effort to build up Afghan forces so they could take over the security of their own country.
But Republican Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that while he supported the overall plan Obama laid out at West Point last Tuesday, he wasn't buying the reassurances being given out by the administration about the timetable.
McCain pointed to a statement reportedly made by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs this week to CBS News correspondent Chip Reid when pressed on the flexibility question and Gibbs went to the president for clarification. "The president told him it IS locked in – there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel," Reid wrote.
"There is a significant contradiction between what Secretaries Gates and Clinton were saying (when they testified on Capitol Hill this week) and what the president's spokesperson said a couple of days ago, "McCain said on NBC's Meet the Press.
"It has caused reactions such as you saw with the prime minister of Pakistan," McCain said. "Policymakers throughout the region...are now trying to figure out whether whether they can really go all in and support this effort or do they have to accommodate because if we leave, they have to stay in the region."
"The rationale for war is to break the enemy's will...Do you break the enemy's will by saying we're going to be there for a year and a half or so and then we're going to begin to leave no matter what the circumstances are or do you tell them we're going to win and we're going to break your will and then we're going to leave. That's a huge factor in the conduct of war especially when you're conducting counterinsurgency, "said McCain.
Gates played down that factor on CBS News' Face the Nation, saying, "The reality is the Taliban reads the newspapers. They know what popular opinion is in Europe. They know what popular opinion is in the United States. Whether you announce a date or not, they can tell as easily from reading the news media about political support for these kinds of undertakings themselves. They always believe that they can outlast us."
"The reality is though what are they going to do? Are they going to get more aggressive than they already are?," Gates added. "We don't think they can. If they lie low, that's great news to us because it gives us some huge opportunities in Afghanistan. We think that we have the opportunity to engage these guys with the additional force we're sending in, make a significant difference in 18 months, get enough additional Afghan troops and police trained that we can begin this gradual process of transitioning security."
Gates said on Meet the Press the administration decided to lay out a timetable for beginning to withdraw troops because there was "an important element here of balancing, sending a signal of resolve but also giving the Afghan government a sense of urgency that they need to get their young men recruited and trained and into the field and partnering with our forces, and then on their own."
"In July of 2011 our generals are confident that they will know whether our strategy is working," said Gates. "And the plan is to begin transferring areas of responsibility for security over to the Afghan security forces with us remaining in a tactical and strategical overwatch position, sort of a cavalry over the hill. But we will begin to thin our forces and begin to bring the home. But the pace of bringing them home and where we will bring them home from will depend on the circumstances on the ground and those judgments will be made by our commanders in the field."
Clinton added, on the same show, "We're not talking about an exit strategy or drop-dead deadline."
Petraeus and Jones used similar language in their talk show appearances. Petraeus said on Fox News Sunday that the July, 2011 date "doesn't trigger a rush to the exits. It triggers a beginning of transition to Afghan security forces and, over time, a beginning of transition of tasks to Afghan governmental elements as well."
On CNN's State of the Union, Jones said, "2011 is not a cliff, it's a ramp. And it's when the effects of this increase will be, by all accounts, according to our military commanders and our senior civilians, where we will be able to see very, very visible progress and we'll be able to make a shift. ..the end of the ramp will be predicated on exactly how much progress we're making with regard to the capability of the Afghan national security force, the better governance that we hope to see, both at the national and regional levels and local levels and tribal levels as well."