Kim Sengupta: Domestic politics must not dictate Afghanistan withdrawal dates

US and UK commanders have been uneasy about setting inflexible dates for withdrawal

Afghan politicians and commentators charge that promises by Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande to pull troops out have been motivated by electoral considerations rather than a true judgment about how prepared Hamid Karzai's government is to take over the country's security.

That is, of course, true. It is also the case that Barack Obama and David Cameron are subject to domestic considerations in a war they wish they had not inherited. Unlike the French, however, the US president and British premier are holding the line at combat missions continuing until 2014 despite both having senior members in their respective parties who would like to see the date moved forward. There is acceptance from both governments that the exit strategy is predicated on the Afghan security forces being able to take over security responsibilities. There is also recognition that the transition process is taking place at a time when the insurgency is raising its tempo of attacks and also successfully exploiting fears among Western forces of an "enemy within" following a spate of incidents of Afghan policemen and soldiers turning their guns on their supposed Nato allies.

US and UK military commanders have been uneasy about setting down seemingly inflexible dates for withdrawal, holding that they send the wrong message to allies and the enemy. Faced with a fait accompli, they are pressing for the large-scale drawdown of forces to take place as late as possible, and this is echoed by their Afghan counterparts. The French government was signed up to the 2014 timetable until Nicolas Sarkozy's sudden announcement in January. The first tranche of this withdrawal took place recently, with French troops leaving the Surobi district near Kabul. Publicly, those among the troops chosen to speak to the media made the right noises. Privately, they and others expressed their misgivings over the new policy. The soldiers, unlike the politicians back home, are only too aware of the human cost of a hasty retreat.