03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gibbs: Afghan Withdrawal Could Come Before July 2011, Decision Won't Be Pushed Later

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Monday that U.S. troops in Afghanistan could start coming home before the stated July 2011 withdrawal date. But under no circumstances, he stressed, would the administration delay that transition.

"It could happen earlier, sure," Gibbs said of drawing down troops. "It won't happen later."

In a briefing with reporters, Gibbs fielded at least five separate sets of questions about the firmness of the administration's July 2011 deadline and what exactly the administration meant when it talked about transitioning troops out of the country. The queries came after several administration officials seemed to operate off a different script, suggesting that the July 2011 date was not written in stone even after the president himself reiterated his commitment.

Gibbs repeatedly stressed that July 2011 was the date -- set by the Pentagon -- when U.S. forces "will transition" while "handing the security responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans." But he was vague on a host of related questions. He would not, for instance, get into what a transition would look like, choosing to call it a "thinning" of troops based on conditions on the ground.

"The president has made clear that there will be a transition, there is a ramp at that point where, based on the conditions on the ground, [that] will decide the pacing for the thinning of American forces," said Gibbs.

But what if the Pentagon says that conditions are ripe for such a thinning?

"Well, we are going to have assessments throughout this process that will measure us attaining the goals leading up to that point," said Gibbs. "The president, though, Chip, has been clear: The transition point begins on July 2011 because the Pentagon says that's the point in which the mission will be able to do that."

And what if the Karzai government remains, by July 2011, incapable of controlling security within its own borders?

"Suffice to say we won't figure that out in June of 2011, that and I think the president addressed a series of steps that would be taken at both that level and underneath the national government level as to how to address the delivery of basic services without corruption," said Gibbs. "There will be a month-by-month assessment on -- on our training. This isn't going to be a surprise."

The remarks reflect a generally optimistic outlook on the part of the entire Obama White House about the ability to quell the Afghan insurgency while simultaneously bolstering national security institutions in that country. But the comments were qualified in a way that seemed designed to give the administration flexibility to revise its plans as the July 2011 date approaches. Though there does appear to be one option that seems off the table for now: U.S. troops may decrease after July 2011, but it will not be a precipitous withdrawal.

"[It will be] similar to what's happening in Iraq, where there's a drawdown based on what General Odierno says are conditions on the ground," said Gibbs. "The same will take place in Afghanistan. There's not going to be some drop off of a cliff."

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