Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham… (William B. Plowman / NBC )
Reporting from Washington — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates denied Sunday that President Obama had set an "exit strategy" for Afghanistan, and he forecast that only a "handful" of U.S. troops may leave the country in July 2011, when a withdrawal is due to begin.
Gates, appearing on television news programs with other senior U.S. officials, said the Obama administration intended to maintain its commitment to Afghanistan while gradually shifting security responsibilities to the country's central government.
"This is a transition," Gates said on ABC's "This Week." "We are not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We are talking about something that will take place over a period of time."
Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and national security advisor James L. Jones appeared on the Sunday TV talk shows in a continuing effort to explain a policy that aims to satisfy those who want to end the war swiftly, as well as those who want to stay for as long as it takes for U.S. goals to be met.
Obama announced last week that he would soon send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to nearly 100,000, but that some would start to return home in 18 months.
His decision to set July 2011 as the point when U.S. troops will begin to depart has proved the most difficult element to explain to domestic audiences and allied governments. The Afghan, Pakistani and Indian governments are concerned that the war-weary United States might sharply scale back its commitment to the region, as it has in the past.
Gates said U.S. troops would first be withdrawn from areas where the Taliban poses less of a threat, mostly in the north. He said U.S. military commanders had reason for optimism that a minimum 18-month troop buildup would work, because they have seen progress in the south where U.S. forces have been added.
"I think one of the reasons our military leaders are pretty confident is that they've already begun to see changes where the Marines are present in southern Helmand," Gates said.
He said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the buildup "has the opportunity to make significant gains. . . . We will have 100,000 troops there, and they are not leaving in July 2011."
Gates also sought to brace Americans for higher military casualties, which are expected as U.S. troops flood the most hotly contested parts of the country in the south and the east.
"We'll have an increase in casualties at the front end of this process, but over time it'll actually lead to fewer casualties," he said.
Jones and Clinton both described the drawdown as not a "cliff, but a ramp" that will reduce troop numbers gradually.
Another element in the strategy will be to try to peel away less committed Taliban fighters. But Clinton said that, in her view, it was not likely that the U.S. and allied governments will be able to persuade the Taliban's senior leadership to give up its fight.
She said she was "highly skeptical" that any of the leaders would renounce their cause and agree to live peacefully in the country.
Clinton and Gates spoke with approval about Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent statement that the Afghan army would be able to take control of some parts of the country in three years, and its entirety in five years. Private analysts consider the goal highly ambitious for the army, which has 90,000 troops to patrol a country about the size of Texas.
Gates acknowledged that U.S. intelligence has not had reliable information on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for "years."