Leading article: Giving ground to the Taliban

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When British troops pulled out of the capital of Afghanistan's southern Helmand province on 20 July, they did so with dignity. Afghans lined the streets of Lashkar Gah to present bouquets while the province's governor delivered a speech recalling how he had told the mother of a British soldier who was killed there that his death had not been vain.

The brave talk of a job well done did not fool many, least of all the Taliban. Their recent wave of suicide bombings has continued unabated, making a mockery of claims that Afghan national forces are in any position to guarantee law and order in the south.

Yesterday brought more deaths to Helmand and its adjoining provinces, as Taliban bombers killed a dozen police in Lashkar Gah. Last Thursday, a suicide bombing killed 19 people, including a young BBC reporter, Ahmed Khpulwak. Other recent casualties of Taliban attacks in the south include a former provincial governor, the mayor of Kandahar, a senior cleric, and President Hamid Karzai's own half-brother.

None of these displays of Taliban power is likely to slow the pace of Western military withdrawal, which is dictated by domestic political considerations, not by events in Afghanistan. Barack Obama wants a quarter of the 100,000 US troops there out by 2012 and the rest out by 2014. Assuming we keep to this timetable, what happens then is unclear. Not every province is as riddled with Taliban insurgents as are the Pakistan border provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

As US, British and other troops continue to pull out, the chances of the Taliban taking over the whole country remain small. A bigger danger is Afghanistan's de facto partition into two zones, one run by the Taliban, the other by Kabul. That may be the most lasting legacy of Western military intervention.

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