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WASHINGTON – Seeking to assure skeptical senators that the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan next year, Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s promised July, 2011, drawdown date represented only the beginning of a withdrawal process that will be based on conditions on the ground.

“I think July 2011 is etched in stone,” Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said during his second day of testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But as I tried to explain it there, [it is] a date when a process begins,” after a series of ongoing assessments of the progress of the war against the Taliban.

“The president was very careful not to set a detailed timeline” for a troop withdrawal, added Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon’s policy chief.

Afghan civilians and military commanders alike understand “the depth and enduring nature of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan,” Flournoy said.

But Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, asserted that the message being sent to Afghans was not nearly so clear.

“We are sounding an uncertain trumpet” about America’s commitment to Afghanistan, McCain said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pressed Petraeus for clarification on what the July 2011 date meant exactly, and what U.S. intelligence says the enemy thinks about the pronounced date.

“Well, I am confused,” Graham said, “and I doubt that the enemy is certain.”

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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