Afghanistan: does July 2011 mean July 2011?

Yesterday, President Obama announced the U.S. would start drawing down in Afghanistan by July 2011.  Sounds pretty specific, huh?  Or maybe not.  Here are extracts from the NYT‘s (first-class) live blogging of today’s Senate hearing on the plan, starring Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates plus Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen:

9:55 a.m. Senator McCain sharply questions Admiral Mullen and Mr. Gates about the president’s announcement that a drawdown of troops would begin by July 2011. The senator grilled the military leaders, saying he found it contradictory that on the one hand, a decision to withdraw would depend on evaluating conditions on the ground and on the other, a withdrawal timeline was in place. “Which is it?” Mr. McCain asked, asserting “you can’t have both.”

Mr. Gates told the senator that the military would do a thorough review in December of 2010 to evaluate whether the withdrawal objective could be met. But Mr. McCain, who has derided the idea of a withdrawal timetable at this juncture, said that a specific date – without clarifying that more evaluation will be needed before withdrawing – gave the “wrong impression” to the American public, soldiers and to the enemy.

Why July 2011 anyway?

10:25 a.m. Secretary Gates interjects that the July 2011 withdrawal date was arrived at, in part, because it will then be two years since the Marines arrived in Helmand.

That feels just a bit arbitrary, doesn’t it?

12:18 p.m. About that July 2011 target date for beginning to withdraw — how does it square with the idea that the actual conditions at the time will determine what happens? Several Senators have wanted to know that. Here are some of the answers from the witnesses. Mr. Gates: “I think the president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions.” Admiral Mullen: “The president has choices, as the president.” Mrs. Clinton: “It is the best assessment of our military experts — as evidenced by Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, General Petraeus, General McChrystal and others — that by July 2011, there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions.” The real point of the target, she suggested, was to make sure that the Afghans know we don’t want to occupy their country.

This one could run and run…