Afghanistan Withdrawal Date: 'Flexible' Or 'Locked In'?

Read below for a new update on December 4.

During his speech from West Point on Tuesday, President Obama specified the date when U.S. forces would start to withdraw from Afghanistan. "[A]dditional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces," he said, "and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011." Obama added: "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."

What remains unclear is how firmly the administration is treating the July 2011 draw-down date.

On Wednesday, CBS White House correspondent Chip Reid questioned administration spokesman Robert Gibbs on this point. Reid reported later:

After the briefing, Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. 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.

Yet, on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a different assessment during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Officials from the Obama administration and the Pentagon tried on Thursday to reassure worried senators, telling them that plans to begin withdrawing American troops in July 2011 are definite, yet flexible enough to give American military commanders the discretion they need.

"The July 2011 date is the date on which we begin to transfer authority and responsibility to Afghan security forces," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, before adding that "the pace, the size of the drawdown, is going to be determined in a responsible manner based on the conditions that exist at the time."

Emphasizing that the Afghans are to take more and more responsibility for their own security, Mr. Gates said, "So it is not contradictory to set a date certain, yet to condition it on the reality that we confront at that time."

Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the July 2011 draw-down would be "responsible" and "conditions-based," a "real target for us to aim at."

But National Security Adviser Jim Jones articulated a different, middle-ground interpretation of the July 2011 date, calling the plan only "somewhat conditions-based" during an interview with Fox News reporter Major Garrett.

Garrett: Is the July 2011 date aspirational or is it a fixed date when those surge troops will move out, regardless of the situation on the ground?

Jones: It is a date in which we all believe that we will be able to effectively start the transition gradually - wherever possible - of responsibilities for the prosecution of conflict or for the governance of various provinces in the country, to the Afghans themselves. So it will mark the end of a significant ramp up of forces which will buy us time and space in order to create the conditions by which the Afghans can start owning their destiny more fully.

Garrett: So it's fixed not aspirational?

Jones: It is somewhat conditions-based, but we believe that the strategy that's been agreed to, which will involve the Pakistanis doing things on their side of the border, President (Hamid) Karzai really forming a cabinet and fighting corruption, fighting the war on drugs, and organizing training and equipping his Afghan national security forces to be more effective and more visible, and better integration of economic development so the Afghans can see a better future for themselves. (All this) Instead of an open-ended commitment that we currently have, and seems to be leading us nowhere fast -- and as a matter of fact -- seems to be victimized by a very resurgent Taliban.

Garrett: The conditions are about how fast we withdraw?

Jones: This isn't a cliff where everybody all of a sudden says 'That's it, it's over.' What is at stake here, in terms of the conditions, is how quickly we can do it. If things are going very well, we can do it more rapidly, if things need a little bit more attention, we can do it more slowly. But it is the point at which there will be a beginning to a different phase in our involvement in Afghanistan. And it's not to say to your viewers, but more importantly to the people of the region, the United States is leaving. We are not leaving the region. We have enormous strategic interest in Afghanistan, east of Afghanistan in Pakistan and we intend to be supportive and helpful partners with them for many years to come.

How does one interpret all these responses? Mike Allen's Playbook from Thursday may provide a helpful guide:

SIT ROOM MINDMELD: July 2011 is fixed: That is going to be the inflection point. That is going to be the date on which we begin to transfer authority and responsibility to Afghan security forces. But the pace, size of the drawdown, and areas to be handed over will be predicated on the situation on the ground. If things are going very well, a larger number of forces could come out of more areas. If not, the size and speed of the drawdown will be adjusted accordingly. This could be a long, gradual drawdown. So it's not contradictory to set a date-certain, yet be conditions-based. We have a high degree of confidence that the addition of 30,000 troops will change the dynamics in some parts o the country by mid-2011. And roughly 60 percent of the country is uncontested now. This policy is about balancing competing interests: On the one hand, we need to signal resolve, and tell the Afghan people and government we'll be their partner and friend -- and let our enemies now we are going to stand with Afghanistan for the long term. At the time, we want to send a signal that the heavy military presence is not permanent, and light a fire under the Afghans to do for themselves what we know they're capable of doing.

THIS WAS WORKED OUT LATE IN THE DELIBERATIONS. The date appealed to Vice President Biden. The "condition-based" proviso got Secretary Gates on board.

UPDATE, DECEMBER 4 -- Jim Jones: 'This Is Not A Withdrawal.' From an interview by BBC North America editor Mark Mardell:

He said that "with a relentless application of this new force in 2011 we will be successful in reaching our goals...That will allow us to start pulling some of our forces out. So there is no contradiction."

I put it to him that that wasn't the way the speech had been seen in the region. This was his response:

"Its very important that people in Afghanistan hear this very clearly: this is not a withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in 2011, it is a decision to turn over to the Afghans some of the responsibility where they are ready to accept that responsibility. But in no manner, shape or form is the United States leaving Afghanistan in 2011."
I asked Gen Jones whether the combination of the push in Pakistan and the new strategy from the United States made him more confident about killing or capturing Osama Bin Laden.