THREE dates about the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan were floating in mid-air yesterday following President Obama's speech setting out his future strategy. The President mentioned “the summer of 2011” as a target date for the beginning of an American exit. In the House of Commons, at Prime Minister's Questions, Gordon Brown refused to name a date but said “there is no question of British troops being withdrawn until the Afghans can take over the nation's security themselves.” In a little-reported statement made before Mr Obama spoke, Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that British forces will probably have to remain in Afghanistan for “at least five years” to support Afghan troops in an “over-watch” role.

Who is right? Barack Obama's date looks extremely optimistic although he did qualify it by saying that negative events could affect it. No doubt he also had in mind that he will face re-election in November 2012. David Miliband's timing looks unduly pessimistic although perhaps he was referring to a relatively small number of troops remaining in an “over-watch” role. The prime minister's formula seems the right one although it too might have to be rethought if the newly-emphasised aim of a large scale training of Afghan forces in a relatively short time fails to work. The fact facing everyone is that if the job is not comprehensively done before withdrawal takes place Afghanistan will revert to its earlier unruly state and all the years spent and lives lost will have been wasted.


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