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Top U.S. Political and Military Leaders Spell Out Obama's Strategy

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WASHINGTON - Even as hundreds of Marines launched a new offensive in southern Afghanistan, top U.S government and military officials made the Sunday morning news-show circuit here today spelling out President Barack Obama’s new war strategy.

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Both Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on three major networks in a rare showing by two cabinet-level officials at the same time in the studios.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, and James L. Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, also made appearances on the news shows.

All fielded questions on the newly announced war strategy ranging from funding to al-Qaida in Pakistan to how the United States will measure its success on the ground. But central to the questioning was the July 2011 date set by the president in the strategy to begin withdrawing troops.

Gates was quick to clear up debate centered on the notion that setting a date to begin withdrawal allows the Taliban simply to wait out U.S. efforts there.

“I don’t consider this an exit strategy. I try to avoid using that term. This is a transition that’s going to take place,” Gates said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” Gates said the transition will be gradual and will be based on how quickly Afghan security forces can take over control of security in the country.

Both Gates and Clinton reinforced the president’s position that the United States would not abandon Afghanistan, but that the commitment to provide security for the country is not an open-ended agreement.

“We’re not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We’re talking about something that will take place over a period of time,” Gates said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“We will begin to thin our forces and begin to bring them home, but the pace of bringing them home and where we will bring them home from will depend on the circumstances on the ground, and those judgments will be made by our commanders in the field,” he said. “We will have a significant number of forces in there for some considerable period of time after that.”

But at the same time, Clinton said, a strong message had to be sent to the Afghan government that it needed to step up and realize that the relationship will change in July 2011.

Clinton promised an ongoing civilian commitment long after combat troops have left the country.

“We will have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan,” she said. “We don’t have an open-ended combat commitment, … but we’re not going to be walking away from Afghanistan again. We will stay involved we will stay supportive.”

The president’s commitment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, along with NATO’s new pledge of 7,000 troops, will help to reverse the momentum the Taliban have gained in recent years, and give the Afghan government the space it needs to grow and train its own security forces, both Gates and Clinton said.

Already, operations by Marines in southern Helmand province are showing progress, Gates said. The Marines moved in there about six months ago. By July 2011, U.S. and NATO troops will have been operating in the heavily contested province for two years. This will be enough time, Gates said, for commanders on the ground to gauge the effectiveness of the surge.

Meanwhile, the strategy will be monitored, he said.

“We’re not going to just plunge blindly ahead if it becomes clear that what we’re doing isn’t working. There are some other alternatives,” Gates said.

Jones said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that it was time to change the strategy in Afghanistan.

“The status quo was clearly not working,” he said. “This will buy the time and space we need to get these other things going. Get the Afghan governance established. Get the Afghan national security forces established. Better integrate the cohesive aspects of our economic development program.”

Jones said officials want to make sure that Afghanistan does not return to a launch pad for attacks against the United States, and he praised Pakistan’s recent efforts to fight the Taliban in their more remote regions, expressing confidence that Pakistan has realized the internal threat provided by both the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Focusing on both Afghanistan and Pakistan will keep the Taliban on the run, he said.

“If you scatter the insurgents and they don’t have a base of operations, then you have the upper hand,” Jones said.

Gates called the border along Afghanistan and Pakistan the epicenter of violent extremists.

“Al-Qaida has close relationships with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they have very close relationships with the Taliban in Pakistan,” he said. “Any success by the Taliban in either Afghanistan or Pakistan benefits al-Qaida, and any safe haven on either side of the border creates opportunity for them to recruit, get new funds, and do operational planning.”

Gates noted that jihadists defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and would like to do the same to the United States, he said.

“They believe that if they can defeat us in Afghanistan that they then have the opportunity to defeat a second superpower, and it creates huge opportunities for them in that area as well as around the world,” Gates said.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Petraeus praised the new strategy, saying that it sends the message of America’s resolve to stand by Afghanistan, but also delivers a sense of urgency to the Afghan government.

The general defined success in Afghanistan as having security forces that can protect the people, and a government strong enough to provide for the people. Petraeus also said that he has no orders to begin withdrawing large numbers of troops starting in July 2011.

“That’s a mark on the wall out there at which we begin to transition to Afghan security forces some of the security tasks. But it is conditions-based. It is a responsible drawdown,” Petraeus said.

“There’s no timeline, no ramp. I think it’s very important to note this doesn’t trigger a rush to the exits. It triggers a beginning of transition to Afghan security forces,” he added.

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