WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- President Barack Obama's July 2011 date for beginning to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan is not a "drop-dead deadline" but a message to Kabul about the urgency of fielding an army to defend the country, senior U.S. officials said today.
"He was balancing a demonstration of resolve with also communicating a sense of urgency to the Afghan government that they must step up to the plate in terms of recruiting their soldiers, training their soldiers and getting their soldiers into the field," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CBS's "Face the Nation" program.
The Democratic president and his top advisors have faced sharp Republican criticism since Obama announced in a televised address on Tuesday that he would send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan but would begin bringing them home in 18 months.
Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) supported the decision to boost troop levels to nearly 100,000 but denounced the July 2011 date as "arbitrary" and said it "sends exactly the wrong message."
Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) questioned whether extremists would see the date as a sign of weakness.
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected those criticisms and defended the president's decision in a round of interviews with the Sunday morning news programs, saying the date would begin a transition to Afghan military control.
"We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline," Clinton told NBC's "Meet the Press." "What we're talking about is an assessment that...we can begin a transition, a transition to hand off responsibility to the Afghan forces."
"It's the beginning of a process," Gates added. "In July 2011, our generals are confident that they will know whether our strategy is working. And the plan is to begin transferring areas of responsibility for security over to the Afghan security forces with...us remaining in a tactical and then strategic overwatch position."
"We will begin to thin our forces and begin to bring them home," he added. "But the pace of that -- of bringing them home and where we will bring them home from -- will depend on the circumstances on the ground. And those judgments will be made by our commanders in the field," he said.
Gates told ABC's "This Week" program the July 2011 date was not arbitrary, saying two years will have passed since the deployment of Marines, giving commanders on the ground enough time to assess whether their strategy is working.
Withdrawal of U.S forces would not take place abruptly but over a period of time, he said.
"We will do the same thing we did in Iraq when we transition to Afghan security responsibility," he said. "We will withdraw first into tactical overwatch, and then a strategic overwatch, if you will, the cavalry over the hill in case they run into trouble."
Gates declined to say how long the United States would keep a significant military force in Afghanistan once it began to withdraw, saying "I don't want to put a deadline on it."
He noted that President Hamid Karzai said in his recent inaugural address that Afghan security forces should take over security control of important areas of the country within three years and assume total responsibility within five years.
"I think that we're in that ... neighborhood, two to three to four years," Gates said. "During that period, we will be...turning over provinces to Afghan security forces and that will allow us to bring the number of our forces down in a steady but conditions-based circumstance."