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The Afghan withdrawal

Eighteen months after President Barack Obama ordered a surge of US troops into Afghanistan, there is general agreement on one point: The campaign has been a tactical military success and has reversed the Taliban's momentum.

world Updated: Jun 13, 2011 23:07 IST

Eighteen months after President Barack Obama ordered a surge of US troops into Afghanistan, there is general agreement on one point: The campaign has been a tactical military success and has reversed the Taliban's momentum.

There has been progress, too, in expanding and training the Afghan army, which is due next month to take over lead security responsibility in seven provinces and cities with a quarter of the country's population.

As Obama and his commanders frequently say, however, the progress is "fragile and reversible."

Nato must beat back an ongoing Taliban counteroffensive; it must expand its military clearing operations from the south to the still- enemy-infested east. The job of constructing a viable Afghan government mostly remains to be done.

Meanwhile, attempts to broker a political settlement with the Taliban or establish a regional diplomatic framework that could support such a deal have barely begun.

What all that means is that next month is not a logical or appropriate moment for the US to begin a troop withdrawal - whether small, medium or large.

That such a pullout will nevertheless take place is the result of Obama's imprudent decision to set a date for the beginning of withdrawals at the same time he ordered the surge of troops.

The President and his advisers are now debating, in private and increasingly in public, how large the withdrawal should be.

The process has reopened a split between those who believe in the strategy of building an Afghan government and army that can hold a diminished Taliban at bay by 2014, and those who would narrow US aims to preventing al Qaeda from reestablishing a base in the region.

Obama's July pullout date seemed driven more by domestic political considerations than sound strategy - and his argument that it would push the Afghan government to step up proved faulty.

Some reports suggest that proposals driven by similar calculations are under consideration - such as setting the fall of 2012 as a date for withdrawing all 30,000 of the surge troops.

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