US officials differ on Afghan exit
Washington - US Defence
Secretary Robert Gates insisted on Monday that the July 2011 date to start
withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan was set in stone, putting him at
odds with his top Afghan war commander.
Gates and General David
Petraeus were in agreement on the need for a gradual withdrawal, but a series
of interviews exposed discord over the flexibility of the start date given last
November by US President Barack Obama.
"There is no question
in anybody's mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of
2011," Gates told The Los Angeles Times.
But Petraeus, asked in a
separate interview whether he could reach that juncture and would have to
recommend a delay to Obama because of the conditions on the ground, replied:
"I think the president
has been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that
it's conditions-based," he told NBC television's Meet the Press programme on
"The president and I
sat down in the Oval Office and he expressed very clearly that what he wants
from me is my best professional military advice."
Stiff Taliban resistance
Afghanistan, with the help
of its Western backers, is trying to build up its army and police so that they
can take over the responsibility for security from US-led Nato forces by the
end of 2014.
The Taliban, toppled in a
2001 US-led invasion, still control large swathes of the south and have put up
stiff resistance to a surge of 30 000 more US troops due to swell American
numbers to 100 000 in the coming weeks.
US public support for the
near nine-year war and Obama's handling of it are at an all-time low, according
to opinion polls in the US, while the death toll for American troops hit a
record monthly high in July of 66.
Both Gates, in the LA
Times, and Petraeus, in a series of interviews with NBC, The New York Times and
The Washington Post, sought to reassure a sceptical public that the US-led
coalition can succeed in its aims.
Petraeus told The New York
Times he did not just want to preside over a "graceful exit", while
Gates suggested some security responsibilities could begin to be transferred to
Afghan forces as early as early next year.
Obama's mid-2011 deadline
to begin a limited withdrawal has been strongly criticised by some who believe
it sent out the message that the US is not in the fight for the long-term and
boosted the Taliban's resolve to wait it out.
Others attack him for not
pulling out troops fast enough as they believe US and Nato forces are bogged
down in an unwinnable conflict.
Petraeus, giving his first
major interviews since assuming command of more than 140 000 coalition troops
in Afghanistan last month, also said he would be prepared to negotiate with Taliban
with "blood on their hands".
The general, who helped
turn around the Iraq war for Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, partly by
wheeling and dealing with warring factions, said a new reconciliation and
reintegration strategy aimed at persuading Afghan insurgents to change sides
was "fairly imminent".
There is "every
possibility, I think, that there can be low- and mid-level reintegration and
indeed some fracturing of the senior leadership that could be really defined as
In his interview with The
Washington Post, Petraeus said 365 insurgent leaders and 2 400 rank-and-file
fighters have been killed or captured over the past three months.
The operations have led
"some leaders of some elements" of the insurgency to begin
reconciliation discussions with the Afghan government, he told the newspaper,
characterising the interactions as "meaningful".
Petraeus formally took over
command of the Afghan war in July after Obama dismissed General Stanley
McChrystal after he and his staff made disparaging comments about senior US