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Petraeus, Flournoy Defend July 2011 Transition Date in Afghanistan

So far, this Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan is less about Kandahar and more about parsing what President Obama meant when he established July 2011 as an “inflection point” for beginning a transition to Afghan security.

Trying to clarify after yesterday’s initial back-and-forth with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a critic of setting any date, Gen. Petraeus read a prepared statement expressing support for the date. During the administration’s debate over Afghanistan strategy last fall, “I did believe there is value of sending a message of urgency” to the Afghan government, Petraeus said. “But it is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is: a date a process begins, determined by conditions” on the ground, “not the end” of a U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

Flournoy reiterated that the date is “an inflection point,” marking the end of the deployment of the surge brigades being sent to Afghanistan now, and the pace of additional drawdowns will be “conditions based.” The president “believes in a conditions-based process,” Flournoy said, adding that May’s visit by the Afghan government provided an opportunity to clarify the U.S.’s “long-term commitment” to Afghanistan.

That said, Petraeus left himself some wiggle room to change his perspective when July 2011 approaches. His support for setting the date in the fall debate — a date he said was “etched in stone” — was “based on projections of conditions by July 2011.” Left unsaid, but hanging in the air, is the prospect that Petraeus would support a rather slow troop drawdown if those conditions don’t materialize. That said, he expressed great confidence that they would. “The trajectory, in my view, has generally been upward” in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, “despite the losses despite the setbacks.”

That may sound like parsing, but parsing July 2011 is the order of the morning. No matter how often Petraeus and Flournoy described July 2011 as marking the beginning of a conditions-based transition to Afghan security responsibilities, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) characterized it as “a goal.”

Evincing an apparent understanding about the political stakes of parsing July 2011, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, passed to reporters a statement reading: “I am glad to hear Gen. Petraeus express his support for the decision to begin U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan in July 2011. I strongly believe it is essential for success in Afghanistan that everyone understand the urgency with which the Afghans need to take responsibility for their own security.”

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