Afghanistan pullout to be gradual, Gates says

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates denied Sunday that President Barack Obama had set an “exit strategy” for Afghanistan, and he forecast that only a “handful” of U.S. troops might leave the country in July 2011, when a withdrawal is scheduled to begin.

Gates, appearing on television news programs with other senior U.S. officials, said the Obama administration intended to maintain its commitment to Afghanistan while gradually shifting security responsibilities to the country’s central government.

“This is a transition,” Gates said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We are not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We are talking about something that will take place over a period of time.”

Gates appeared on Sunday TV talk shows in a continuing effort to explain a policy that aims to satisfy those who want to end the war swiftly, as well as those who want to stay for as long as it takes for U.S. goals to be met.

Obama announced last week that he soon would send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to nearly 100,000, but that some would start to return home in 18 months.

His decision to set July 2011 as the point when U.S. troops will begin to depart has proved the most difficult element to explain to domestic audiences and allied governments. The Afghan, Pakistani and Indian governments are concerned that the war-weary United States might sharply scale back its commitment to the region, as it has in the past.

Gates said U.S. troops first would be withdrawn from areas where the Taliban poses less of a threat, mostly in the north. He said U.S. military commanders had reason for optimism that a minimum 18-month surge would work, because they have seen progress in the south where U.S. forces have been added.

He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the surge “has the opportunity to make significant gains. … We will have 100,000 troops there, and they are not leaving in July 2011.”

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