When asked on CBS' "Face the Nation" whether the July 2011 date marks a deadline for U.S. involvement in the Afghan conflict, Gates said no.
"There isn't a deadline," Gates told host Bob Schieffer. "What we have is a specific date on which we will begin transferring responsibility for security, district by district, province by province, in Afghanistan to the Afghans. The process of that and the subsequent thinning of our forces will take place over a period of time and will happen and will be done based on conditions on the ground. And the decision on that will be made by our commanders in the field."
When asked whether the transfer of responsibility means that U.S. forces will remain but merely cede responsibility to the Afghans, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "No, it means that as we assess the conditions on the ground we will be transferring responsibility to the Afghans, and depending on the assessment at the time, that means some of our troops can begin coming home.
Clinton said our increased commitment to Afghanistan, to break the momentum of Taliban, take back territory, and effectively train Afghan security forces is being expedited.
Pointing to the Marines' progress in Helmand province this year, Clinton said she believes an assessment of what is happening will "very likely mean some troops can come home."
Gates said conditions on the ground will determine the pace by which troops return.
"So we get to the month, the magic month, and he might decide to bring six troops home or something like that?" Schieffer said.
"Or 6,000," Gates said.
"But it might be six!" Schieffer replied.
"Well, you know, Bob, I think it's very hard for us to be armchair generals," said Clinton. "What we've done and what the president's direction to the commanders on the ground is very clearly: we want this to move. We want it to move quickly. We want to show urgency about our aims here. And we do expect to start this transition in July 2011. And I think everybody is very clear about that. All of the generals are. We certainly are. But it's hard to sit here today in Washington and predict exactly what that pace will be."
When asked why a date for withdrawal was stated in the first place, Gates said the president was aiming to convey both resolve and also a sense of urgency to the Afghan government, that it must step up, for America's role in Afghanistan will be different. "And as the security component comes down, the economic, development and the political relationship will become a bigger part of the relationship.
"We are not going to abandon Afghanistan like we did in 1989," Gates said. "But the nature of the relationship will change."
"What if there's total chaos in 18 months?" Schieffer asked. "What if the government has fallen in? Does that mean that we'll still begin this process? I mean, what would we turn [responsibility] over to?"
"It's clearly a hypothetical," Gates said. "If we thought that was going to be the case I think we would've perhaps come to a different set of conclusions and the president would've made different decisions."
"Our military commanders are confident that they will have clear understanding by that time of whether the strategy is working or not. And if it's not, then we obviously will have to reconsider the whole approach. But our commanders have the confidence and bought into this date as a realistic date in terms of when they will be able to make a judgment and begin this process of handing over security responsibility."
When asked if even mentioning a date for withdrawal might embolden the Taliban, or might cause the Afghan government to seek to accommodate militants as they anticipate America's departure, Gates disputed the notion.
"The reality is the Taliban read the newspapers," he said. "They know what popular opinion is in Europe. They know what popular opinion is in the United States. Whether you announce a date or not, they can tell as easily from reading the news media about political support for these kinds of undertakings themselves and they always believe that they can outlast us. The reality is tough - what are they going to do? Are they going to get more aggressive than they already are? We don't think they can. If they lie low, that's great news for us because it gives us some huge opportunities in Afghanistan."
When asked to describe the terms of American success in Afghanistan, Clinton said it would be achieving our primary goal there: "To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda. It is also being able to stand-up an Afghan security force so that they can defend themselves, and partnering with the Afghan government and people so that they will not once again become a safe haven for terrorists."
"Part of our very careful deliberation over the last months was to ask ourselves really hard questions, like, 'Okay, who is the enemy? Is it every young boy who is coerced into joining the Taliban or who decides he can make more money being a fighting member of the Taliban than he can being a member of the Afghan security army?' You know, we thought hard about that. And no, we don't think so. We think those are people that actually - if we reverse and break the momentum of the Taliban, which we think can very well happen with the strategy that we're pursing - that a lot of these people are going to come back over."