Senior White House officials said Tuesday night that while President Obama intends to start drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan starting in July 2011, the administration is committed to keeping an unspecified number of civilian personnel and military trainers in the country long after.
In a telephone briefing with new-media reporters just minutes after Obama formally announced that he would be sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, three of his top aides provided a bit more detail about the timeframe for U.S. withdrawal from that country.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior White House aide said that the president's goal is for the "extended surge" in U.S. forces to bolster the Afghan government. U.S. troops could then start being withdrawn.
But that doesn't mean that everyone's coming home.
"We have a longer term effort at training the Afghan national security forces which will take our financial support and training support," the official said "And longer than that is the civilian effort."
Obama, the official said. "was quite clear that we have enduring interest in the region and we won't be repeating the mistakes of the past and removing ourselves politically, diplomatically or economically from Afghanistan or Pakistan. So the short term is the combat forces [withdrawing]. But we will remain engaged in other ways."
The pace of the military withdrawal remains unclear. The White House will take "conditions on the ground into account" as it moves "through that process of getting combat forces out," the official said.
"We haven't indicated a specific rate of withdrawal or a number of withdrawal," said the official. "But as [the president] indicated in the speech it should be very clear to the Afghans that it is our expectations that they will be in charge, that they will be moving to be in charge of security in their own country."
The official also spoke of benchmarks for success -- but he wouldn't actually describe any of them. Instead, he said there would be monthly reports given to Obama as to the status of this "robust set of benchmarks." Congress, meanwhile, would be provided these reports on a quarterly basis.
"We will be very transparent with the American people about how we are doing against those goals so we can be accountable for them, and that is also true with this 18-month timeframe around this extended surge," the official said. "[This] not only increases our leverage and the pressure on the Afghan government, but frankly increases the pressure on us to perform during that time period. The president is very mindful of that and frankly recognizes his responsibility to the American people to be transparent."