WASHINGTON — One of the key goals of the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, is to try to settle the debate on what the significance is of the July 2011 date, according to an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) official familiar with Petraeus' thinking.
After a month in the job where he stayed mostly out of public view, the general is preparing a round of interviews with media outlets.
The significance of July 2011 in the Afghanistan war continues to be a question that the administration is struggling to answer clearly.
U.S. military officials are stressing that any withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011 could be fairly minor and will be based on conditions on the ground. When asked if the number of troops to be withdrawn in July could be relatively small, a senior U.S. military official told reporters "we still think that's the case."
Petraeus, the new commander of international troops in Afghanistan, is expected to underscore the case that the July 2011 date is one that does not necessarily have a predetermined number of troops leaving.
"He's taking a very pragmatic approach and understands that it's a year away, the full uplift isn't even on the ground yet, there are a range of issues outside ISAF control (mostly in governance) and that the enemy has a vote. He's not laying any groundwork - we're just working hard at the mission given by the president," said the ISAF official.
The issue of how many troops could be withdrawn, and how quickly that could happen, continues to dog the Pentagon.
"We keep going around and around and around on this, and the answer is the same as it's always been. We will begin thinning our troops in July of 2011. How many and how fast is going to depend on the situation on the ground," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
At his Senate confirmation hearing, Petraeus emphasized that the 2011 date is "the beginning of a process, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits." Petraeus said the date is meant to put pressure on the Afghan government to step up and take responsibility, but emphasized the U.S. will be assisting the Afghans.
The U.S. and its NATO allies are expected to devote much of a November ministerial meeting to discussing various "metrics" or indicators of success in Afghanistan, the official said. Those metrics will include: the number of trained and equipped Afghan security forces; security conditions in key districts; the ability of the Afghan government to provide basic services to its citizens as well as other indicators of whether areas of the country can be turned over to Afghan control. "The more stable areas are the early candidates for transition," the official said, noting the first areas may be in north.
The ministerial will be followed by a report to President Obama from his commanders in December about whether the overall counterinsurgency strategy is working. That December report will be instrumental in deciding how to proceed come July 2011.