WASHINGTON– Setting July 2011 for the beginning of a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan was intended for two primary audiences: the Afghan government in Kabul and war-weary Americans, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the new strategy for Afghanistan, Gates said the 18-month deadline signals the need for Kabul to claim greater responsibility and shows the American public the war isn’t open-ended.

“I think that there are at least two principal audiences,” Gates said of the July 2011 date announcement. “One audience [is] the Afghan government, [which] must accept responsibility in terms of their own governance, in terms of their own security forces, in terms of accepting their responsibility and … taking ownership of this conflict on their own soil, that it’s not just going to be fought by foreigners on their behalf.

“I think the other audience,” he continued, “is the American people, who are weary after eight years of war, and to let them know this isn’t going to go on for another 10 years.”

Though any reduction in U.S. forces in July 2011 would be based on conditions on the ground, the Defense Department expects to be able to transition uncontested areas to Afghan responsibility and gradually draw down at that time, Gates told the senators.

In a speech yesterday, Obama announced a strategy for Afghanistan that entails adding 30,000 more troops by summer, but also points to July 2011 as the date when the United States begins transferring security responsibilities to the Afghan forces and withdrawing its troops.

The July 2011 date was chosen because it will be two years after Marines arrived in Helmand province from an earlier increase in forces, Gates said. But in his appearance today alongside Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates suggested that the July 2011 marker for withdrawal is a target date, and not a binding commitment.

“It will be based on conditions on the ground,” Gates told senators. “But by the same token, we want to communicate to the Afghans that this is not an open-ended commitment on the part of the American people and our allies around the world.

“We have to build a fire under them, frankly,” he added, “to get them to do the kind of recruitment, retention, training and so on for their forces that allow us to make this transition.”

The additional 30,000 troops will bring the total number of U.S. forces to nearly 100,000, a deployment which is expected to include a brigade-sized element to train Afghan forces — a key component undergirding the transfer of responsibility to Afghanistan to begin in July 2011.

Gates and Mullen told the committee that the Afghan military is slated to increase from 134,000 troops in December 2010 to 170,000 by July 2011. Both men declined to provide specifics on the number, timing and pace of the U.S. drawdown, with Gates saying that any reduction in U.S. forces would be considered in an assessment slated for December 2010.

“The president has indicated that we will have a thorough review of how we’re doing in December of 2010, and I think we will be in a position then to evaluate whether or not we can begin that transition in July,” Gates said. “If it appears that the strategy’s 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.”

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