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The troops dilemma facing Obama

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

A Nato French Foreign Legion soldier is surrounded by goats at a checkpoint
Many allies clearly want an "out" date from Afghanistan

Among military commanders and politicians, there is a sense of growing frustration at the length of time it is taking for the White House to make its decision on strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan.

As public support for the campaign wanes in almost every Nato ally, the signal sent out by President Obama's decision will be crucial.

The fear is that the current delay sends out a message to other Nato members, to the Afghan people and to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that America and its partners may be wavering.

For three months, President Obama has now had on his desk the report and recommendations from the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) commander he appointed in Kabul, General Stanley McChrystal.

While British, US and other forces on the ground get on with the task of trying to build a reasonable Afghan security force so that Afghans can ultimately ensure their own security and stability, the fear is that the delay at the White House is helping the Taliban.

With every Isaf soldier's death, the militants are hitting successfully at the international community's will to continue the campaign.

Political danger

Military commanders are well-aware that counter-insurgency is a slow process that takes years, and not months or days to achieve.

The professional head of Britain's Armed Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, and the head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, have both said that British forces could be in Afghanistan for up to five more years, because training the Afghan security forces to take on the job for themselves will take time.

The danger for political leaders in Britain and the rest of Europe is that trying to reassure their voters by setting withdrawal dates and discussing exit strategies sends out a message to the Afghan people that defying the Taliban may not be worth the risk, if Western troops are to pull out soon.

That risks undermining the entire mission, in which the will of the Afghan people is key.

Meanwhile, one of the dangers for President Obama is that committing a large number of extra American troops would make Afghanistan very much an American mission.

So whatever number he ultimately decides to send, the White House is still likely to ask Nato's European allies for more combat troops.

However, many European nations and some other allies very clearly want an "out" date - especially those who have committed combat troops to serious fighting and whose armed forces are overstretched as a result.

The Dutch are currently due to pull out their 1,800 troops from Uruzgan province by 2010.

Canada, with 2,800 troops, wants to pull out from Kandahar by 2011, while Gordon Brown - with an election looming next year - has begun to hint that even Britain's 9,000 troops will begin handing over some areas in Helmand to Afghan forces as soon as they can.

As one American diplomat recently put it, nobody in the alliance is yet running for the door - but they are walking towards it.

And military leaders warn that the danger of that is that while the costs of the campaign in terms of soldiers' lives are high and likely to remain so, nobody has yet successfully spelled out to the public just how deadly the cost of failure in Afghanistan and the wider region might be in the longer-term.



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