US says Afghan pullout not fixed

WASHINGTON: Top US officials defended Barack Obama’s new strategy to win the Afghan war, denying that a timeline for departure was set in stone as NATO met today to consider his call for more troops.

Following Obama’s announcement that he would send 30,000 more troops to combat, Italy said that it could send up to 1,500 reinforcements while Germany’s parliament held a debate on extending its mission in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and US armed forces chief of staff Admiral Michael Mullen trooped to Capitol

Hill on Wednesday and told Congress that any timetable for an eventual pullout was flexible, as they fielded questions from skeptical legislators.

The presentations came after Obama late Tuesday unveiled a plan for

turning around the war with a surge of 30,000 more US soldiers — but adding that a US troop withdrawal should begin in July 2011.

Legislators, including Obama’s former White House rival John McCain, said such a timetable made no sense. Senior administration officials however said the timing was flexible.

“I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving,” said Clinton, who added the goal was “to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan.” Gates said the extra troops would be in place in July 2010, and that a December 2010 review could affect the target withdrawal date. “I think the president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions,” he told McCain, a Republican senator.

While US allies have been generally supportive of Obama’s new

strategy, few have so far committed new troops to the war against the

former ruling Taliban militia which is now in its ninth year.

France and Germany have both indicated they will wait until a special conference on Afghanistan, being hosted by London in January, before they commit any more troops.

Britain however has confirmed it is sending another 500 troops to join the more than 9,000 soldiers already in place.

A source in Italy’s defence ministry said Rome would send between 500 and 1,500 reinforcements to Afghanistan in 2010.

NATO’s foreign ministers gathered in Brussels today for a two-day meeting which is expected to focus on Friday on Afghanistan after Clinton’s arrival.