Washington (CNN) – The July 2011 date was barely uttered when critics pounced, questioning whether the president was trying to make a political point at the expense of military security.
"These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," President Obama said in his West Point address.
Just minutes after the speech was done, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who supports the increase in troops, said setting a deadline to begin a withdrawal is wrong.
"What concerns me greatly is the president's decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan," McCain said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
The administration worked hard Wednesday to defend that target date, stressing that it is only the beginning of a potential transfer of security to Afghans and that it will ultimately be decided based on conditions on the ground.
So how and why did the administration come up with a target date?
With the new resources - more than 30,000 extra U.S. and NATO troops - the administration believes training and handing off some territory to Afghans is possible.
"We will be in a position, in particularly uncontested areas, where we will be able to begin that transition in July 2011," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The administration also believes that a date has to be set, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the committee Wednesday. She said it sends a signal to the Afghan government that this is not an endless transition, but that it also has not "locked ourselves into leaving."
"The United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan, we are not interested in running their country, building their nation. We are trying to give them the space and time to be able to build up sufficient forces to defend themselves," Clinton said. "By July 2011, there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will, of course, be based on conditions."
The July 2011 date was created after an "intensive look at this from the operational military perspective, intel perspective, political development perspective - so it's not an arbitrary date, [but] carefully chosen, and it reflects the reality of the situation on the ground," said David Sedney, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Central Asia, in an interview with CNN.
Sedney said that in December 2010, there will be a comprehensive review so the U.S. will not be "blindly going in any direction." The review could mean the U.S. "can start transferring lead security before the summer of 2011," but also, he admitted, "it's possible things may not go the way we want, and that's when we reevaluate and see if we have to make any changes."
The question is how committed the U.S. is to pulling out some troops in July 2011 because the president has said they will. McCain pressed the defense secretary on this point.
"If it appears that the strategy is not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself," Gates said. "We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective."
Speaking to troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he anticipates the influx of troops will make the difference. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the war "will be decided" in the next year or two.
"I believe that by next summer, the uplift of new forces will make a difference on the ground significantly. We believe by this time next year, we'll see a level of progress that will convince us that we can clearly articulate the progress and predict the effectiveness of our operations," McChrystal said in his address to the troops.
"I believe that by the summer of 2011 that it will be obvious to all the players involved, to the Taliban and insurgents. I think it will be obvious to the Afghan national security forces and obvious to us, and it will be obvious to the Afghan people in all of those areas, and that's the critical point."