Gates Says Afghan Withdrawal Deadline May Be Delayed

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.

ABC News video of Clinton, Gates, Mullen testifying on Afghanistan.Play

"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.

VIDEO: McCain Not Sold on Obamas SpeechPlay

"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."

Lawmakers also heard from Mullen, who warned that the number of casualties could increase as counterinsurgency operations became more focused.

"Although we must expect higher Alliance casualties in coming months as we dedicate more U.S. forces to protect the population and mentor the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], our extended security presence must -- and will -- improve security for the Afghan people and limit both future civilian and military casualties," Mullen said in his prepared remarks to the Senate. "I believe that progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be gradual, and sometimes halting. Yet I believe we can succeed."

To complement the growth in U.S. military forces -- the first of which will begin to arrive within two to three weeks -- the number of civilian positions in Afghanistan will increase to 974 by early next year, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But she said resources for those civilian personnel "will be a challenge."

Like Gates, Clinton also stressed on the need to unite on the issue.

"We will not succeed if people view this effort as the responsibility of a single party, a single agency within our government, or a single country," Clinton said in her testimony. "We owe it to the troops and civilians who will face these dangers to come together as Americans -- and come together with our allies and international partners -- to help them accomplish this mission."

Nearly all three were united on the question of whether this is the last chance for the United States to get it right.

McCain: Timeline will Embolden U.S. Enemies

Mcain argued on "Good Morning America" today that setting a timeline for withdrawal will only allow the Taliban to regroup and emerge stronger when U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

"I support the president's decision to have a properly resourced counter insurgency strategy," McCain told "GMA's" Robin Roberts. "My only difference -- and it is a significant difference -- is setting a date for return. Dates should be determined by success on the ground, not by the calendar."

The top U.S. commander on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said today he supports the timeline and argued that it is not absolute.

"I'm absolutely supportive of the timeline," McChrystal said in an address to his commanders today. "The 18 months timeline, however, is not an absolute. It's not an 18 months and everybody leaves. The president has expressed on numerous occasions a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan and that includes all manners of assistance."

"If the Taliban melted away and left the people alone for 18 months or longer, in fact, what would happen in my view is the capacity of the Afghan government through its security forces but also local governance and development would make it much more difficult for insurgents returning to contest that," McChrystal added.

McCain, however, said the Taliban will be inclined to make other arrangements and return when U.S. forces start withdrawing.

"I trust his [McChrystal's] judgment enormously but I also understand that both our enemies and our friends alike hear the message that we are going to be leaving at a certain date. That was unnecessary," McCain said. "I'm confident we can succeed, but when you tell your enemies that there's a date that you're going to start leaving... it emboldens your enemies and dispirits your friends."

"It would have been so much easier and I think much more compelling to say success on the ground can be achieved within a year to 18 months, I'm confident of that, but we're going to stay until we get the job done," the former GOP presidential candidate added.

Vice President Joe Biden on "GMA" defended the president's timeline, saying the new strategy is "narrowed and focused."

"There would be over 100,000 American troops, 135,000 NATO and allied troops in the region. How are they emboldened knowing that by the time we train up the Afghanis we're going to be gradually handing off," Biden told "GMA's" Diane Sawyer. "This idea that somehow they're [Taliban] going to lay low and all of a sudden come racing back when we only have 98,000 troops there, it's just not logical to me."

"In the meantime, if they lay low, that would be just wonderful because it would allow us to train up even faster the Afghan troops, allow us to further degrade al Qaeda in Pakistan, and allow us to further help the Pakistanis have a more capable military to take on the bad guys in the western part of their country," he added.

As for whether 30,000 additional troops will be enough, Biden said, "My view all along has been, less important the numbers than what the strategy is."

Meanwhile, some of Obama's own party members are skeptical of the surge. Today, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., expressed reservations about the troop increase in his opening remarks of the hearing.

"It seems to me that the large influx of U.S. combat troops will put more U.S. Marines on street corners in Afghan villages, with too few Afghan partners alongside them," he said.

Other Democrats are concerned about the costs associated with a troop surge. On Tuesday, the president, who met before his speech with Congressional leaders, said this new approach would cost $30 billion this year and that he would work with lawmakers to address that cost.

Some Soldiers Welcome the Surge in Afghanistan

Obama delivered a sober assessment Tuesday night of the security situation in Afghanistan and announced that after a lengthy strategy review he has ordered 30,000 additional troops, which will be deployed starting in early 2010, to target insurgents and secure key areas there.

"These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," the president said before a crowd of roughly 4,000, mostly West Point cadets. "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."

The reaction among war-weary U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan was mostly positive, with many weary soldiers welcoming the surge.

"The president said things that I think most of us here anticipated that he would say," U.S. Army Col. Jay D. Haden, based in Kabul, told ABC News. "I'm very supportive of it, it sounds like a solid plan. I think it's consistent with the wishes and hopes of the most of the people here."

Obama argued that the surge would accelerate the process of training Afghan national security forces, and handing over to them the responsibility sooner than later, in turn allowing U.S. troops to come home, starting in 2011.

"After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," the president said. "These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."

Some U.S. troops agree.

"I definitely think that more forces, more U.S. forces coming to Afghanistan, will end up helping us out in the long run and allow us to come home sooner," said U.S. Army soldier Travis Edwards in Kabul.

But even as some U.S. troops prepare to deploy quickly, some are skeptical about the new strategy.

"The war in Afghanistan is really confusing to me," said soldier Brian Transon, from Fort Dunn, N.Y. "And flooding it with 30,000 of our guys, I'm not understanding that too well, but what can I say, Obama is going to do what he's going to do and we are going to go over there and get it done."

Afghanistan 'Moved Backwards' in Recent Years

In his address, Obama laid out a status report on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and noted that while it is not "lost," the nation has "moved backwards" over the last several years because of the Taliban gaining momentum there. The broader goal remains the same, Obama said: disrupting and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing future attacks in the United States.

In order to achieve that goal, the president laid out three key objectives: the military effort to create conditions to transition responsibility to the Afghan security forces; a civilian surge to provide greater security and stability for the Afghan government; and a renewed partnership with Pakistan.

He also made it clear that more troops is not the only answer, that Karzai's government needs to do more to fight corruption and that U.S. resources will be filtered down to local governments and specific ministries.

"The days of providing a blank check are over. ... And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance," the president said. "We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas -- such as agriculture -- that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people."

Karzai, in a statement, welcomed the strategy, saying it was "ready for any kind of cooperation."

The Afghan Taliban did release a statement assailing the new strategy.

"There is neither a new point in the Obama's strategy, nor it contains any solution for the Afghan issue," said the statement by the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." "This stratagem will not pay off. The reinforcement will result into (their) fatalities. Similarly, the Afghans, the public of the world particularly, the people of America now know the realities and they are not going to be deceived by Obama's juggling of words."

"The Mujhideen of the Islamic Emirate have worked out a vast strategy and prepared for strong resistance to foil the illegal, anti-Islamic and anti-Afghanistan conspiracies of the internal and external Allies," the statement added. "The Mujahideen have high morale and complete readiness and believe that Obama's new strategy will fail like it did previously. It will face fiasco."

On Tuesday, Obama also pushed for a deeper partnership with Pakistan, saying that his administration recognizes that success in Afghanistan is "inextricably linked" to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

"We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border," the president said.

Obama said that his administration is committed to a partnership with Pakistan built on "mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust," but Pakistani leaders must also do their part.

Pakistan's foreign ministry today released a statement saying "it looks forward to engaging closely with U.S. in understanding the full import of the new strategy and to ensure that there would be no adverse fallout on Pakistan." In recent days, the country's leaders have expressed skepticism of Obama's new plan.

Obama also touted the new strategy as an "international effort" with contributions from allies.

"Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. Now, we must come together to end this war successfully," he said. "For what's at stake is not simply a test of NATO's credibility -- what's at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world."

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that he expects U.S. allies to contribute at least 5,000 additional troops next year, although he did not provide details. Britain has already announced the deployment of 500 more soldiers, but France and Germany have so far made no such commitment.

"This is our fight, together. We must finish it together," Rasmussen said at a news conference. "I can confirm that the allies and our partners will do more, substantially more. In 2010, the non-U.S. members of this mission will send at least 5,000 more soldiers to this operation, and probably a few thousand on top of that. That is in addition to the more than 38,000 they have already there."

ABC News' Jake Tapper, Karen Travers and Jim Sciutto contributed to this report.