MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The pace of a planned U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan due to start next July may not be entirely decided until shortly before it begins, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested Sunday.
Gains by opposition Republicans in congressional elections last week have raised questions about possible push-back on President Barack Obama’s contested policy of starting to withdraw from the nine-year-old war in mid-2011.
Obama’s Democrats strongly support setting a date to start withdrawing from the unpopular conflict but Republicans, who may now have a stronger say in policy, largely oppose it and may try to minimize any withdrawal.
Asked whether the elections, in which Obama’s Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives to Republicans, would make Obama more or less likely to pursue a significant drawdown next summer, Gates said: “I think it remains to be seen.”
“Partly, I think things will depend on our assessment next spring and early summer of how we’re doing,” Gates said, speaking to reporters shortly before landing in Australia for bilateral talks.
“I think that will have the biggest impact on the president’s decisions in terms of the pacing.”
The comments to reporters flying with Gates to Australia for annual bilateral talks appear to further lower expectations of any clarity on the pace of the withdrawal from a White House review of war strategy next month.
Gates and the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, have already publicly stated that they did not expect any major strategy changes to emerge from the review, and predicted “tweaks” instead.
This year has been the deadliest for Western troops since U.S.-backed forces ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in 2001. More than 479 U.S. troops have been killed since December 2009, when Obama ordered a “surge” of 30,000 additional forces.
Still U.S. and NATO commanders on the ground say progress is being made and are calling for patience, amid anxiety back home about a war whose successful conclusion depends as much on Afghan politics as it does on battlefield strategy.
Republicans in Congress, including Obama’s 2008 presidential rival Senator John McCain, have pressed the president to back away from his July 2011 date to begin the withdrawals, saying it has backfired and fueled Taliban rhetoric about waiting out the West.
Howard McKeon, expected to become the next chair of the House Armed Services Committee when it passes to Republican control next January, told Reuters in an interview last week he would not seek to change Obama’s mind on the drawdown date. But he insisted that any drawdown be conditions-based.
Gates stressed that the Obama administration had always maintained that the withdrawals would be based on conditions on the ground “in terms of the numbers.”
“And I think that continues to be the position. It will be based more on that than on domestic politics.”
Editing by Alex Richardson