Classifying the July 2011 Afghan benchmark

White House officials on Sunday immediately faced questions about the nature of President Barack Obama's July 2011 benchmark to begin winding down military operations in Afghanistan.

But many of the president's top advisers and cabinet officials seemed to contradict each other over what that deadline means, how resolute it would be and what might happen after the date passes.

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"Well, conditions-based, certainly," Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, told Fox News. "And again, there's no -- there's no time line, no ramp, nothing like that."

But that's now how Gen. James Jones, the White House's national security adviser, classified the benchmark.

"It is not a cliff. It's a glide slope," he told CNN. "And so, certainly, the president has also said that we're not leaving Afghanistan."

Jones later repeated, "And 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."

Meanwhile, on CBS, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seemed to classify that commitment and subsequent drawdown far differently than both generals.

"There isn't a deadline," he stressed on "Face the Nation. "What we have is a specific date on which we will begin transferring responsibility for security, district by district, province by province, in Afghanistan to the Afghans.

That statement changed slightly, however, when Gates appeared on ABC's "This Week"

"I don't consider this an exit strategy, and I try to avoid using that term," he said. This is a transition... it's not an arbitrary date, it'll be two years since the marines went into [the Helmann Province]... They believe in that time Gen. McChrystal will have the opportunity to demonstrate, decisively, in certain areas in Afghanistan, that the approach we're taking is working."

But that differed somewhat from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's take.

"We will have an enduring committment to Afghanistan," she said on NBC. "we're going to be putting in combat troops, we're going to be joined by 42 partners, and we will most likely be continuing once our combat responsibilities have ended."

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