Patrick Cockburn: Unlike Iraq, dressing retreat up as success will be difficult

The greatest difficulty facing the US and Britain in Afghanistan is not that the Taliban is very strong, but that the Afghan government is very weak. This does not seem to be changing, and it is this that creates difficulties in making concrete plans and dates for an American and British withdrawal.

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has always had a feeble grip on the country. When he was first mentioned as the future ruler of Afghanistan in 2001, I was talking to a local warlord in a village south of Kabul. He and his men hooted with merriment and kept asking me who he was. Another local leader in the same province raised the UN flag over his village and told me that he was planning to recognise the UN but not the new Afghan government.

Afghans have been listening attentively to the uncertain trumpet call in Washington since President Obama announced last year that he would first increase the number of US troops as part of an "Afghan surge", and then reduce the level of forces in 2011. His idea was to break the momentum of the Taliban's advance, inflict serious damage on them in the areas of their strongest support in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and then negotiate.

But Afghans are ever eager to emerge on the winning side. The message they received was that the Americans and their allies were not going to stay too long. The Pakistani military and political elite drew similar conclusions and prepared themselves for the day when the American troops depart.

The US leadership is clearly divided on the merits of staying in Afghanistan, but cannot work out how to withdraw without too great a loss of face. It reached the same conclusion over Iraq, but there the situation was easier. The anti-US insurgents came from the Sunni community – which made up only 20 per cent of Iraqis – who were under intense pressure from the Shia government, the armed forces, militias and death squads. The insurgency in Afghanistan is drawn from the Pashtun community, 42 per cent of the population, and so far shows no sign of splitting.

With Iraq, it was enough that US voters got the impression they had won. A retreat could be conducted with no US objectives achieved, but nobody could be accused of cutting and running. This was the achievement of General Petraeus, now the military commander in Afghanistan.

But political and military conditions are wholly different there. Dressing up a withdrawal as some sort of success will be far more difficult in Afghanistan.