By Walter Alarkon - 12/06/09 05:06 PM EST
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that U.S. troops will start coming
home from Afghanistan starting in July 2011, but he left open the
chance that the number of troops returning then could be small.
"Let's be clear, the date in July 2011, to begin transferring security responsibilities and bringing troops home, is firm," Gates said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday.
Gates again Sunday signaled flexibility on President Barack Obama's Afghanistan surge strategy. The president last week announced that he is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan over the next six months and that they will start to come home in July 2011. But Gates and other Obama administration officials have noted that July 2011 is not a deadline for pulling the troops out.
"What we have is a specific date at which we'll begin transferring security [responsibilities] district by district, province by province... to Afghans," Gates said.
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the president issued the increase with a date to start troop withdrawals to signal to the Afghan government a balance between the resolve necessary to fight the Taliban and the urgency needed to spur progress.
"We are not going to abandon Afghanistan like we did in 1989," said Gates, referring to the year when the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to end efforts to intervene in the Afghan civil war. "But the nature of that relationship will change," Gates added.
Clinton, when asked why the president hasn't called for a "victory" or "win" in Afghanistan, said that the president is looking for "success."
"Success is doing what we've set forth as our primary goal, which is disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda," she said. She added that their goals include working with Afghans and getting their security forces to prevent the country from becoming a terrorist "safe haven."
Clinton said that she has spoken with Pakistani government officials about Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is believed to be directing insurgent efforts against the Afghan government while hiding across the border in Pakistan.
She said that Omar and the Taliban threat will be a "continuing issue in our ongoing discussions" with Pakistan leaders. The Pakistan government also sees the Taliban as a threat to its sovereignty, said Clinton, who noted a Taliban bombing last week of a mosque in Pakistan that killed military officers.
"I think there's been a sea change in Pakistani government and military... as they have seen a growing challenge to sovereignty in this group," she said.