Gates, Petraeus differ on Afghan withdrawal

Monday, August 16, 2010
WASHINGTON – From wire dispatches

As American public support for the war and US President Barack Obama's handling of it are at an all-time low with the death toll for foreign troops hitting 2000, US defense secretary and Afghan war commander are in lock-step on flexibility of Afghan exit. General David Petraeus refuses to be bound by a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing

General David Petraeus has refused to be bound by a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, reserving the right to seek a delay if conditions are not right. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, insisted Monday the July 2011 date to start withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan was set in stone.

Petraeus said President Barack Obama's date for the start of a limited U.S. withdrawal was not set in stone and should be viewed more as an attempt to increase the urgency of the counter-insurgency effort.

"There is no question in anybody's mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of 2011," Gates told The Los Angeles Times. But Petraeus, asked in a separate interview whether he could reach that juncture and have to recommend a delay to Obama because of the conditions on the ground, replied: "Certainly, yeah.

Gates and Petraeus were in lock-step on the need for a gradual withdrawal, but a series of interviews exposed discord over the flexibility of the start date given last November by U.S. President Barack Obama.

"I think the president has been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that it's conditions-based," Petraeus told NBC television's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Afghanistan, with the help of its Western backers, is trying to build up its army and police so that they can take responsibility for security from U.S.-led NATO forces by the end of 2014. The Taliban, toppled in a 2001 U.S.-led invasion, still control large swathes of the south and have put up stiff resistance to a surge of 30,000 more U.S. troops due to swell American numbers to 100,000 in the coming weeks.

U.S. public support for the near nine-year war and Obama's handling of it are at an all-time low, according to opinion polls here, while the death toll for American troops hit a record monthly high in July of 66.

Both Gates, in the LA Times, and Petraeus, in a series of interviews with NBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post, sought to reassure a skeptical public that the American-led coalition can succeed in its aims.

Petraeus told The New York Times he did not just want to preside over a "graceful exit," while Gates suggested some security responsibilities could begin to be transferred to Afghan forces as early as early next year.

Petraeus, giving his first major interviews since assuming command of more than 140,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan last month, also said he would be prepared to negotiate with Taliban with "blood on their hands."

The general, who helped turn around the Iraq war for Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush -- partly by wheeling and dealing with warring factions - said a new reconciliation and reintegration strategy aimed at persuading Afghan insurgents to change sides was "fairly imminent." There is "every possibility, I think, that there can be low- and mid-level reintegration and indeed some fracturing of the senior leadership that could be really defined as reconciliation."

The death toll for foreign troops in Afghanistan has reached another grim milestone, with the number killed since the war began nine years ago topping 2,000, according to the website.

In all, 2,002 members of the international forces have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, including 1,226 Americans, 331 from Britain and 445 from other nations making up the coalition, the independent website said.

So far this year, 434 foreign troops have been killed, compared with a peak of 521 in 2009, it said. Last week, the United Nations said the number of civilian casualties in the Afghan war had risen sharply in the first six months of this year, most of them as a result of insurgent attacks. It said 1,271 ordinary Afghans were killed in the first half and another 1,997 wounded.

Compiled from AFP and AP reports by the Daily News staff.