Just two months ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called “the notion of time lines and exit strategies” from Afghanistan “a strategic mistake.”
So why is President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan not that kind of mistake?
That was my first question today on "This Week."
Here’s the exchange:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Gates, let me begin with you, because there has been so much focus since the president's speech on this call to begin an exit strategy in July 2011. I want to show you what Senator McCain said earlier this week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When conditions on the ground have decisively begun to change for the better, that is when our troops should start to return home with honor, not one minute longer, not one minute sooner, and certainly not on some arbitrary date in July 2011.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: Just two months ago, you seemed to agree with that sentiment. You called the notion of timelines and exit strategies a strategic mistake. What changed?
ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, first of all, I don't consider this an exit strategy. And I try to avoid using that term. I think this is a transition...
STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
GATES: This is a transition that's going to take place. And it's not an arbitrary date. It will be two years since the Marines went into southern Helmand and that two years that our military leaders believe will give us time to know that our strategy is working.
They believe that in that time General McChrystal will have the opportunity to demonstrate decisively in certain areas of Afghanistan that the approach we're taking is working. Obviously the transition will begin in the less contested areas of the country.
But it will be the same kind of gradual conditions-based transition province by province, district by district, that we saw in Iraq.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We've heard that phrase a lot...
GATES: But it begins -- but it begins in July 2011.
STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I understand that. But you about this conditions-based decision-making. And I guess that it's fairly vague term. So if the strategy is working, do the troops stay? If it's not working, do they leave? How -- how is the decision-making process going to go?
GATES: Well, from my standpoint, the decision in terms of when a district or a cluster of districts or a province is ready to be turned over to the Afghan security forces is a judgment that will be made by our commanders on the ground, not here in Washington.
And we will do the same thing we did in Iraq, when we transitioned to Afghan security responsibility. We will withdraw first into tactical overwatch, and then a strategic overwatch, if you will, the cavalry over the hill in case they run into trouble.