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Clinton, Gates Walk Back Obama's "Locked In" Afghan Withdrawal

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Despite the president's commitment on Tuesday that a surge of US and international troops in Afghanistan would "allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," that date is not a "drop dead deadline"--at least according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recorded an interview with David Gregory that's set to air Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press. Both Clinton and Gates contradicted Obama's withdrawal language:

HILLARY CLINTON: We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop dead deadline. What we're talking about is an assessment that in [July] 2011, we can begin a transition. A transition to hand off -- responsibility to the Afghan forces.

ROBERT GATES: We're not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We're talking about something that will take place over a period of time.... Our military thinks we have a real opportunity to do that. And it's not just in the next 18 months. Because we will have a significant -- we will have 100,000 forces -- troops there. And they are not leaving-- in July of 2011. Some handful or some small number or whatever the conditions permit, we'll begin to withdraw at that time.

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After the president's speech, CBS News's Chip Reid sought clarification as to whether July 2011 was a "target" or a deadline and asked Obama's Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the date. Reid reported that Gibbs then called him to his office "to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in - there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel."

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