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Afghan end game peeks through headlines

Mark Mardell | 18:58 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

“None of this will be easy, there will be more difficult days ahead," President Barack Obama said about the US-led war in Afghanistan today at the White House.

Mr Obama’s message was one of momentum toward a clear goal and a clear end in Afghanistan. Not nation building. Not a country free of corruption. But stopping al-Qaeda and the Taliban making a come-back. Behind the headlines, there’s an end game peeking through.

The president said “significant progress” was being made against al-Qaeda and that the US had seen "considerable gains” against the Taliban

He made it clear this was not a given but because of his actions, and said the extra troops he sent in and their success on the ground had only been possible because he had withdrawn them from Iraq.

Most importantly, he not only defended his most controversial decision, he singled it out as a reason for success.

The president’s promise that troops will start coming home next summer was widely criticised, even by serving officers, as giving comfort to the enemy. But he said it had given a clear signal and created a sense of urgency, which in turn will create the conditions for a handover to Afghan forces in 2014.

Neither the review by the White House national security staff nor the president suggested how many troops will come home in July 2011, nor whether that will be the start of a rolling-programme withdrawal.

But a decision has to be made, probably by next spring. That will mark a new phase in the conflict. The president’s next task is to design the path to a full hand-over. I’ve been told by well plugged-in sources that this report by the Center for a New American Security is a sensible and detailed plan. It emphases  action by special forces rather than regular troops.

It's pretty clear that if the difficulties I’ve mentioned below are not solved, the reaction from the White House will not be “one more heave” but “that’s life”.

Just about everyone agrees the current strategy of counter-insurgency, which is more about winning hearts and minds than simply killing the bad guys, is right. Right for now, that is. But next year expect a gradually transition to counter terrorism. When he's up for re-election in 2012, the president knows he won't in a position to declare victory. But he needs his policy to be seen as a reasonable success, so much so that it won't be a big issue.

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