TO see America's top military commander collapse at a Congressional hearing was an unusual and unnerving experience. Listening to a question from Senator John McCain, General David Petraeus' eyes glazed over, he turned pale and slumped lower in his seat. He was helped from the room but returned quite soon and explained that the problem had been dehydration following several days of travel. That is understandable but it is tempting to think that the question from the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, which Petraeus had just answered may have contributed to his discomfort.

Senator Levin asked the general whether he fully supported President Obama's target of July next year for the start of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Petraeus paused for a long time before saying that the military had to be careful with timelines. Levin asked if that was a qualified yes, a qualified no or a non answer. After a further pause Petreus said it was a qualified yes. He could hardly have taken either of the two other options. The reality is that the things are not going well in Afghanistan. The first of General McChrystal's new strategy surges against the Taliban in Helmand province in March has not been a success and the much publicised surge in Kandahar, originally set for this month has now been postponed to September. An early withdrawal seems unlikely.