White House says troop pullout still on target

By Anne Gearan
Associated Press / June 21, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration reaffirmed yesterday that it will begin pulling US troops out of Afghanistan next summer, despite reservations among top generals that absolute deadlines are a mistake.

President Obama’s chief of staff said an announced plan to begin withdrawing forces in July 2011 still holds.

“That’s not changing. Everybody agreed on that date,’’ Rahm Emanuel said, adding by name the top three officials overseeing the policy girding the war: General David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff.

Petraeus, the war’s top military boss, said last week that he would recommend delaying the pullout if conditions in Afghanistan warrant it. Days after the date was announced in December, Gates pointedly said it was not a deadline.

Emanuel’s remarks reflect the White House view that Obama must offer a war-weary American public and Congress a promise that the nearly nine-year war is not open-ended. The problem, congressional Republicans and some military leaders say, is that a fixed date encourages the Taliban-led insurgency and undermines US leverage with Afghan leaders.

Gates pledged yesterday that some troops would begin to leave in 13 months, but he was more cautious.

“We clearly understand that in July of 2011, we begin to draw down our forces,’’ Gates said. “The pace with which we draw down and how many we draw down is going to be conditions-based.’’

Uniformed and civilian defense leaders accepted the announcement of a date to begin leaving as a condition of Obama’s major expansion of the war. Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops, the last of whom are arriving now, with a mission to squeeze the Taliban on its home ground, build up Afghan security forces, and improve chances that local people would be behind the US-backed central government.

With little progress apparent in the critical Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan, the split between politics and tactics is again on display. As Gates acknowledged yesterday, it is taking longer than he hoped to gain an enduring edge over the Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

Gates asked for time and patience to demonstrate that the new strategy is working. He lamented that Americans are too quick to write off the war when Obama’s revamped strategy has only just begun to take hold.

“It is a tough pull,’’ Gates said. “We are suffering significant casualties. We expected that; we warned everybody that would be the case last winter.’’