Analysis: Afghanistan pullout date not definite

US Afghanistan
Obama's three chief war managers said Wednesday that the president's Afghanistan exit strategy isn't absolute.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

So much for the deadline.

President Barack Obama started the clock on the U.S. war in Afghanistan this week, announcing that the beginning of the end would come in July 2011 even as he massively expanded the war by ordering 30,000 new U.S. forces into the fray.

Selling that mixed message to Congress just hours later, Obama's three chief war managers promptly put the countdown on hold. The exit strategy isn't absolute, they said, disappointing Democrats for whom the July 2011 date was meant as an olive branch from a Democratic president bearing bad news.

No, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the United States wouldn't pack its bags before the Afghan security forces are ready to pick up the job.

"We're not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away," the defense chief said during a daylong promotional tour on Capitol Hill. In the course of Obama's long deliberations about the strategy announced Tuesday, Gates went on record as saying that deadlines are a foolhardy exercise and that the duration of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan is an unfathomable mystery.

But back to Capitol Hill, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said no, the United States isn't bound to a calendar for the war.

"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Clinton said. "It is the best assessment of our military experts ... that by July 2011 there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions."

And no, said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander in chief hasn't necessarily said his last word on the subject.

"The president has choices as the president," Mullen said, looking a bit glum.

The military certainly doesn't want an open-ended war, having already fought in Afghanistan for more than eight years with little to show for it, but Mullen didn't want to be the guy putting Obama on the spot.

The Obama administration says July 2011 is a "transition point," a time to begin turning over authority to Afghan security forces that have proved themselves up to the task. It would be a responsible handover, Obama said.

The squishy terminology didn't please Democrats even before Wednesday's all-day testimony, during which Gates and the rest made clear that Obama wants to hold to the exit plan if he can. They just wouldn't commit.

That pleased no one.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the trio they had the math backward: It should be one U.S. soldier to every three Afghans, not the five Americans for every Afghan recruit currently in the crucial Taliban bastion of Helmand province.

"I would like to see an endpoint," Sen. James Webb, D-Va., said. "And this is something that you can expect to hear more from our perspective on over the coming months. What exactly is going to bring about the conditions under which we can end our involvement?"

Republicans have backed the troop surge since the war's commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, proposed it last summer and wanted the three witnesses at the hearing to do away with the deadline window-dressing altogether. That provided better theater than the Democrats' reluctant discontent.

Republicans got Gates to say that the July 2011 date is intended to mean different things to different audiences.

To the Afghan government, it's a prod to improve and a reminder that the United States won't be its policeman forever, Gates said. To Americans sick of the war, it pledges that the United States won't be in Afghanistan for another decade, he also said.

"I would just like to remind everyone there is another audience that wasn't mentioned by Secretary Gates," growled Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "It's the enemy. They have a vote in this war."

Republicans also pounced on Gates' reference to a review he said the administration will do a year from now, with six months to run on the surge. At that point, the president could order adjustments if he needs to, Gates said.

"We're going to look throughout the process, particularly in December 2010, and make a decision then as to whether we should withdraw at a certain pace or not withdraw at all?" Graham asked.

"I guess the way I would phrase it is that ... it is our plan to begin this transition process in July of 2011 if circumstances dictate in December," Gates replied.

"So his statement last night did not bind him to start withdrawing in 2011? That's the understanding of this panel?" Graham said.

Gates answered for all of them.

"I think it was a clear statement of his strong intent," he said.