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How Long Will the War Continue After July 2011? Two, Three, Five Years?

During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) tried to drill down on the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan after the transition phase to Afghan control begins in July 2011. Menendez suggested that the Obama administration is deceiving the public and asked Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen if they could assure the committee that “tens of thousands” of troops won’t be in Afghanistan “years after” that date.

They wouldn’t. Gates, looking a bit displeased, said that the administration had been “clear that this is the beginning of a process” that was “based on the conditions on the ground.” President Obama “clearly sees July 2011 as an inflection point for drawing down with a view to transferring control” to the Afghan security forces over a “period of two to three years” although Gates was cut off before he could finish saying “years.” As far as I have seen and heard, that’s the first I’ve seen the administration address how long it envisions the transition period lasting. Clinton added that she thought it would take “five years” before the Afghans would be “responsible for their entire security.” But it wasn’t clear — at least not to me — whether she meant five years *from 2011 *or five years from now, the latter of which would be in line with Gates’ statement.

Menendez was very displeased. He said the dates set by the Obama administration, particularly the July 2011 transition date, “as solid as quicksand and at best aspirational.” It wouldn’t be responsible of him to tell his constituents that the war would be winding down any time soon, and pointedly warned Clinton, Gates and Mullen of the need to be “honest in our assessment.”

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