Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a Senate committee today that it is necessary to put a timeline on U.S. combat troops' commitment to Afghanistan to "build a fire" under the Afghan government to make them take charge of security.
Gates, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, said the July 2011 deadline set by President Obama in a speech to the nation Tuesday night is not a "deadline" or an arbitrary timeline. Any withdrawal from Afghanistan would "based on conditions" in the country.
That was reinforced by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs who said that the president's timeline was a signal to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's government that it must "change their behavior and take charge" of their security.
"What we want them to understand is there can't be a permanent dependence on us being there," Gibbs said.
But any troop withdrawal would be a "conditions-based drawdown," he said.
"If it appears that the strategy is not working and that we will not be able to transition in July, 2011 then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself," Gibbs said.
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were united on the question of whether this is the last chance for the United States to get it right.
They also fielded a barrage of questions by Republican lawmakers, who agreed with the troop surge, but expressed reservations about the timeline outlined by the president Tuesday night.
"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving, but what we have done... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan," Clinton told the committee. "We are not interested in running their country."
Gates, Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee the day after President Obama told the nation he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and that they would start transitioning out of the country in July 2011.
Gates argued that while the date indicates only the beginning of the transition process, it is important to stress to the people of Afghanistan the need to take responsibility of their own security needs.
"We're not just going to throw these guys in the swimming pool and walk away," Gates told the committee. "It will be based on conditions on the ground but at the same time... we have to build a fire under them, frankly, to get them to do the kind of recruitment, retention, training and so on for their forces that allow us to make this transition."
Gates addressed criticism by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that setting a deadline would embolden the Taliban and al Qaeda to simply wait out the U.S. and that any pullout should be tied to security conditions in the country rather than an arbitrary timeline.
The 2011 date was picked because it would mark two years since additional U.S. marines arrived in the Helmand valley, one of the hotbeds of insurgency.
Even as he faced fire from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers -- first in the Senate and then at hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- Gates took a direct stab at critics of the White House's new strategy.
"The notion that our adversaries in Afghanistan are not aware of the debates in this country and the debates in Europe and elsewhere are unrealistic," he said. "They know these things."