Petraeus marches out of step
General David Petraeus, the commander of United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, has cast doubt on US President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing troops from the country, saying it depends on conditions on the ground.
His comments threatened to create a rift with the Obama administration after Defense Secretary Robert Gates contradicted the general by insisting that the withdrawal date is definite.
In an interview on US television’s Meet The Press on August 15, Petraeus said the battle against Taliban militants was an “up-and-down process” and it remains too early to determine how successful it will be.
Asked about the deadline for a phased US troop pullout, he said Obama had defined withdrawal as “a process, not an event” and emphasized that meeting the president’s start date for withdrawal would be “conditions-based”.
“This is a date [July 2011] when a process begins that is conditions-based,” he said. “As the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and the security forces and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces.”
Petraeus conveyed the same message in several other media interviews, telling The New York Times that he did not plan to preside over a “graceful exit” and declaring that the Taliban were wrong if they believed they simply had to wait for American forces to withdraw before prevailing.
“Clearly, the enemy is fighting back, sees this as a very pivotal moment, believes that all he has to do is outlast us through this fighting season,” Petraeus said. “That is just not the case.”
But Gates took a different tack in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, saying: “There is no question in anybody’s mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of 2011.” Gates also told the magazine Foreign Policy that he intended to retire sometime in 2011.
Obama’s mid-2011 deadline has been strongly criticized by some who believe it encourages the Taliban to fight on by sending the message that the United States is not in the fight for the long term.
Petraeus told Meet The Press that the American commitment to Afghanistan would be lasting, although he fell into line with administration policy by accepting the principle of a phased withdrawal.
“We will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re more able to do less in certain areas,” Petraeus said.
Petraeus, the former commander of American forces in Iraq, was giving his first media interviews since assuming charge of the 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan from General Stanley McChrystal, who was fired in June for making disparaging comments about senior administration figures in a magazine interview.
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