WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is committed to start transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces in July 2011 but may not begin to scale back the U.S. troop surge until later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
Gates told Congress the 30,000 troop surge could last between 18 and 24 months, giving the Pentagon leeway to assess conditions on the ground before pulling out.
President Barack Obama, in unveiling the 30,000 troop increase in a speech on Tuesday, said the troops would begin coming home starting in 18 months.
Clarifying the plan in testimony to a congressional committee, Gates said a “full scale reevaluation of where we stand” would take place in December 2010.
The administration would then assess whether plans to begin transferring security responsibility to the Afghans in July 2011 remained on track.
Gates called the July 2011 transition date a “clear statement of his (Obama’s) strong intent.”
“It is our plan to begin this transition process in July 2011. If circumstances dictate in December (2010), I think as I said the president always has the freedom to adjust his decisions,” Gates told the Armed Services Committee.
As the transition gets underway, Gates suggested U.S. forces could begin to pull back from the frontlines as Afghan forces play a bigger role in certain district and provinces, much as they did during the transition in Iraq.
He said the transfers would take place in the “most uncontested places” of Afghanistan first. Other areas of the country could remain locked in “extraordinarily heavy combat.”
Asked whether the July 2011 start of the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans may not include immediately a withdrawal of U.S. forces, Gates said:
“That is correct. I think as we turn over more districts and more provinces to Afghan security control, much as we did with the provincial Iraqi control, that there will be a thinning of our forces and a gradual drawdown,” he said.
But he added: “We’re not just going to throw these guys (Afghan security forces) into the swimming pool and walk away.”
He said the goal was to “build a fire” under the Afghan leadership to step up training and recruitment of their security forces to smooth the transition.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: “I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving. But what we have done, and I think it was an appropriate position for the president to take, is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan.”
Reporting by Adam Entous, editing by David Storey