President Obama admitted yesterday that US troops could remain in Afghanistan in significant numbers long after next summer, when a planned withdrawal is due to begin.
His comments came as General David Petraeus, his newly anointed commander in the country, prepared for confirmation hearings next week that are expected to focus closely on the timetable.
We did not say, 'Starting in July 2011, suddenly there will be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan, Mr Obama told reporters.
We said wed begin a transition phase that would allow the Afghan Government to take more and more responsibility.
General Petraeus, making his first public remarks since his surprise appointment, said he supported the Presidents timetable but hinted that the specifics would depend on the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.
I will provide the best professional military advice, he told reporters.
Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, said that some of the surge troops would leave as planned in July, but he left the door open for changes after the next review in December.
He pledged to allow General Petraeus the freedom to make tactical changes but insisted the overall strategy would stay the same beginning with the operation to wrest control of the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar.
Mr Gates said the postponed operation would go ahead in the autumn as planned, bolstered by 10,000 surge troops yet to arrive in the country.
Questions still remain over the future of the Administrations civilian staff in Afghanistan, most notably the Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his Special Envoy, Richard Holbrooke.
Mr Obama insisted that General Petraeuss appointment did not point to further changes, but underlined the discipline and unity he expected in the aftermath of the McChrystal debacle.
I am confident that weve got a team in place that can execute, he said.
(The Times)