Page last updated at 17:09 GMT, Sunday, 6 December 2009

Obama team rejects criticism of Afghan exit timing

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton were defending President Obama's plans

Senior US government figures have rejected criticism of President Barack Obama's plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011.

President Obama announced last week that the US would boost troop numbers, but start pulling out by July 2011.

State Secretary Hillary Clinton said it was not a "drop-dead deadline", while Defence Secretary Robert Gates said it was "the beginning of a process".

Mr Gates also said the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden were unknown.

He said it had been "years" since the US last had any good intelligence about his movements.

'Wrong message'

Republicans have criticised President Obama's date as being "arbitrary" and a possible encouragement for the Taliban.

Senator John McCain said it sent the wrong message to the militants.

There has also been concern in Afghanistan that its government would not be ready to cope in the event of a speedy US exit.

We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline
Hillary Clinton
US Secretary of State

Correspondents say the Afghan government and security forces recognise that the country is at a critical juncture - the Taliban have continued to gain strength, and although there is little enthusiasm for extra troops, officials recognise they are unable to deal with the situation on their own.

Mr Gates emphasised that "there was no deadline", and that the handover of responsibilities to Afghan authorities district by district would be based on "conditions on the ground".

He said troops would be sent home gradually, with the US retaining an "overwatch" position if necessary.

"[President Obama] was balancing a demonstration of resolve with also communicating a sense of urgency to the Afghan government that they must step up to the plate in terms of recruiting their soldiers, training their soldiers and getting their soldiers into the field."

Bid for 'patience'

He added that in July 2011 US generals will know "whether our strategy is working".

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government has been plagued by allegations of corruption, said: "Afghanistan welcomes this new strategy, and Afghanistan will do all it can to be a good partner in it."

But he warned the international community to have "patience with us and the realisation of the realities in Afghanistan.

"If it takes longer, then they must be with us," he said on CNN.

Mr Obama ordered 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan as quickly as possible, bringing US troop strength in the country to more than 100,000.

Announcing the surge, he said the mission in Afghanistan was to defeat al-Qaeda, reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny them the ability to overthrow the government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also in the studios on Sunday, said: "We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline.

"What we're talking about is an assessment that... we can begin a transition, a transition to hand off responsibility to the Afghan forces."

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