Washington: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates insisted on Monday the July 2011 date to start withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan was set in stone, putting him at odds with his top Afghan war commander.
Gates and General David Petraeus were in lock-step on the need for a gradual withdrawal, but a series of interviews exposed discord over the flexibility of the start date given last November by US President Barack Obama.
"There is no question in anybody`s mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of 2011," Gates told The Los Angeles Times.
But Petraeus, asked in a separate interview whether he could reach that juncture and have to recommend a delay to Obama because of the conditions on the ground, replied: "Certainly, yeah.”
"I think the President has been quite clear in explaining that it`s a process, not an event, and that it`s conditions-based," he told NBC television`s `Meet the Press` program on Sunday.
"The President and I sat down in the Oval Office and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice."
Afghanistan, with the help of its Western backers, is trying to build up its Army and police so that they can take responsibility for security from US-led NATO forces by the end of 2014.
The Taliban, toppled in a 2001 US-led invasion, still control large swathes of the south and have put up stiff resistance to a surge of 30,000 more US troops due to swell American numbers to 100,000 in the coming weeks.
US public support for the near nine-year war and Obama`s handling of it are at an all-time low, according to opinion polls here, while the death toll for American troops hit a record monthly high in July of 66.
Both Gates, in the LA Times, and Petraeus, in a series of interviews with NBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post, sought to reassure a sceptical public that the American-led coalition can succeed in its aims.
Petraeus told The New York Times he didn`t just want to preside over a "graceful exit”, while Gates suggested some security responsibilities could begin to be transferred to Afghan forces as early as next spring.
Obama`s mid-2011 deadline to begin a limited withdrawal has been strongly criticised by some who believe it sent out the message America is not in the fight for the long-term and boosted the Taliban`s resolve to wait it out.
Others attack him for not pulling out troops fast enough as they believe US and NATO forces are bogged down in an unwinnable conflict.
Petraeus, giving his first major interviews since assuming command of more than 140,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan last month, also said he would be prepared to negotiate with Taliban with "blood on their hands”.
The general, who helped turn around the Iraq war for Obama`s predecessor, George W Bush -- partly by wheeling and dealing with warring factions -- said a new reconciliation and reintegration strategy aimed at persuading Afghan insurgents to change sides was "fairly imminent”.
There is "every possibility, I think, that there can be low- and mid-level reintegration and indeed some fracturing of the senior leadership that could be really defined as reconciliation."
In his interview with The Washington Post, Petraeus said 365 insurgent leaders and 2,400 rank-and-file fighters have been killed or captured over the past three months.
The operations have led "some leaders of some elements" of the insurgency to begin reconciliation discussions with the Afghan government, he told the newspaper, characterising the interactions as "meaningful”.
Petraeus formally took over command of the Afghan war in July after Obama dismissed General Stanley McChrystal after he and his staff made disparaging comments about senior US administration figures.
The interviews came hours before the icasualties.org website announced that the total number of foreign troops killed since the start of the Afghan war in 2001 had topped 2,000, including 1,226 Americans and 331 from Britain.