By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
June 16, 2010 - President Barack Obama's directive calling for the start of a conditions-based drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 shouldn't be considered as an exit date, but rather the beginning of the transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghans, the top U.S. military commander in the region told a Senate panel today.
U.S. Central Command commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing was a continuation from yesterday's meeting, which was postponed after Petraeus had fainted due to dehydration.
The officials picked up where they had left off, explaining the essence of Obama's Afghanistan strategy and the significance of setting a timeline. They also provided an update on Afghanistan operations.
"As I noted yesterday, I did believe there was value in sending a message of urgency -- July 2011 -- as well as the message the president was sending of commitment -- the additional, substantial numbers of forces," Petraeus said. "But it is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is: the date when a process begins, based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits."
Petraeus added that his agreement with Obama's policy was based on projections of conditions in July 2011.
"We're doing all that is humanly possible to achieve those conditions," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and his experts and leaders in the region will conduct "rigorous assessments" throughout the year to determine progress and, if necessary, make adjustments in the strategy as July 2011 approaches, Petraeus said.
"I will provide my best military advice to the secretary and to the president on how I believe we should proceed based on the conditions at that time, and I will then support the president's decision," the general said. "Providing one's forthright advice is a sacred obligation military leaders have to our men and women in uniform, and I know that that is what the president expects and wants his military leaders to provide."
Although pleased with Petraeus' explanation of the meaning of the July 2011 timeline, some on the committee voiced concerns.
Petraeus attempted to assuage the legislators' concerns, pointing out that some "journalistic accounts" have misconstrued the president's strategy. The July 2011 timeline is subject to conditions on the ground at that time, he explained.
"What I have tried to explain today is my understanding of what July 2011 means and how it is important, again, that people do realize, especially our partners, especially our comrades-in-arms in Afghanistan and in the region, that that is not the date when we look for the door and try to turn off the light, but rather a date at which a process begins," he said.
July 2011 "is an inflection point," Flournoy said. "It is a point at which the end of the surge will be marked and a process of transition that is conditions-based will begin."
Setting a goal to begin the transition U.S. military forces out of Afghanistan shouldn't be considered as detrimental to the U.S. government's long-term commitment there, Flournoy continued, noting a recent strategic dialogue held with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and his cabinet, in which U.S. officials discussed "long-term security assistance, long-term commitments to build capacity, governance [and] development."
And, the participants at that meeting departed with "no questions in their mind about the depth and enduring nature of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan," Flournoy said. "I think that has to be [an] important context in which this conversation happens." In his opening remarks at today's meeting with the Senate panel, Petraeus noted initiatives, such as the formation of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan command, that are pursuing greater partnership with Afghan forces. Such initiatives, he said, are intended to help Afghan forces achieve the capability to assume the leading role in operations.
"To that end, I think we should note that Afghan forces are in the lead in Kabul and in a number of other areas and missions," Petraeus explained. "And they are very much in the fight throughout the country, so much so that their losses are typically several times U.S. losses. Our Afghan comrades on the ground are indeed sacrificing enormously for their country as are, of course, our troopers and those of our [international] partner nations."