The top American commander in Afghanistan warned Monday there should be no sudden exodus of U.S. troops when the process of withdrawing forces begins next year.
In an interview with the BBC, Army Gen. David Petraeus urged caution over hopes for the planned pullback of American troops, which is scheduled to begin in July 2011.
"That's a date when a process begins -- nothing more, nothing less. It is not the date when the American forces begin an exodus and look for the exit and the light to turn off on the way out of the room," he said, in an interview recorded in Kabul.
"It's a date when the process of transition of some tasks to some Afghanistan forces -- in those areas where conditions allow it, and at a pace allowed by the conditions -- that's what begins then," Petraeus said.
The four-star general declined to say whether he believed the start of the withdrawal may need to be delayed, but said the surge of international troops is showing signs of success. He said there had been a major impact in diminishing the Taliban's capability in the country's south and also around the capital Kabul.
"The reality is that the momentum that the Taliban have established over the course of recent years has been reversed in many areas of the country and will be reversed in the other areas as well," he said.
"It gets harder before it gets easier"
Petraeus warned, however, that further progress to force Taliban fighters out of their remaining safe havens will entail tough fighting. "It gets harder before it gets easier," he said.
In late 2009, Obama authorized to grow the force in Afghanistan by 30,000 to 100,000 troops -- triple the level from 2008 -- but promised to begin withdrawing forces by July.
"Come July 2011, I will offer the President my best professional military advice," Petraeus told the BBC, asked if the start of the process may need to be pushed back.
Petraeus, who's been credited with a successful war strategy in Iraq, insisted he wouldn't shirk from offering Obama difficult advice on the drawdown.
"When you go into a job like this ... you think that it's your last job, that's what I did in Iraq. You are determined to do the very best you can, in this particular position, to provide your most forthright assessments and advice," Petraeus said.
His comments were the latest in a media blitz over the last two weeks, which has also included interviews with NBC's "Meet the Press," The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Petraeus took charge of U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan in July, replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired by Obama over disparaging remarks he and his aides made about their civilian bosses.