Warning to politicians about early Afghan troop pull-out

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The Independent Online

One of the chief proponents of the US military's "surge" policy in Afghanistan has declared that "unrealistic expectations" were raised over the gains made by Nato's offensive to capture the Taliban stronghold of Marjah.

General Jack Keane, a former vice -chief of the US Army, also warned that politicians talking about the early pullout of troops from the conflict send the wrong signals to both allies and enemies about the West's commitment.

Before a visit to Helmand last weekend, the Defence Secretary Liam Fox said there should be a quick withdrawal of British troops from a country which he described as a "broken 13th-century state". President Barack Obama has set July 2011 as when US forces would begin a drawdown.

General Keane's warning comes after General Stanley McChrystal described Marjah as a "bleeding ulcer". The US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan has told US and Afghan troops and officials that the pace of establishing security and stability needed to be speeded up.

During a visit to the town in Helmand, which was captured earlier in the year, General McChrystal said: "How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community? I am telling you, we don't have as many days as we would like... this is a bleeding ulcer right now. You don't feel it here, but I'll tell you it's a bleeding ulcer outside.

"What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible. We said 'we're taking it back'. We came in to take it back, and we haven't been completely convincing."

Mark Sedwill, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan who is now Nato's civilian chief in the country, said: "It [Marjah] was a long way gone, therefore I think more patience is necessary. But I can quite understand why the sheer amount of attention created a sense of expectation that is hard to fulfil." Nato and Afghan officials point out that three months after Marjah and its hinterland was wrested from insurgents, dozens of families have returned, the main market is thriving, and the local governor has started to build a skeleton administration.

The US mission in Marjah, and the parallel British operation Moshtarak, were supposed to embody a new strategy in which Afghan security forces would move into captured areas to provide security. In the past, a lack of forces has meant that ground taken, at a cost of lives, has been allowed to slip back into Taliban hands.

But local people say the insurgents have not gone away. Haji Mohammad Hassan, a tribal elder, fled Marjah for the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah two weeks ago, after being threatened by gunmen.

"There was no security," he said. "By day there is government. By night it's the Taliban." A local trader, Jawad Ahmed Wali, added: "The Talibs are targeting the tribal leaders because they do not want the government to be established here. The government and the Americans must do more to protect these people, because a leaderless people would be even more frightened of the Taliban."

One major problem is that the local population remains distrustful of an Afghan police force.