Leading article: Our Afghan exit is now overdue

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On Remembrance Sunday last year, this newspaper became the first and only to call for British troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Since then, Barack Obama has concluded a tortuous negotiation within his administration, and between his administration and the United States military. Towards the end of this process, a new government was formed in the United Kingdom, and at their first meeting David Cameron and President Obama agreed to set a timetable for the ending of a combat role for international forces in Afghanistan. The seal was set on this important shift in policy at the Nato summit in Lisbon yesterday.

Nato's new policy of disengagement is neither as clear nor as quick as it should be, but it is a welcome recognition that the end state in Afghanistan is never going to be perfect and that an open-ended commitment creates as many problems as it solves. The confusion continued in Lisbon, where Nato leaders managed to contradict each other while insisting that they were completely united. British officials briefed journalists that there would be no combat operations after 2014. American officials described the date as "an aspirational timeline". Nato officials said: "This isn't a calendar-based process." Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato Secretary General, promised that international forces would stay "as long as it takes". Perhaps he meant that Nato forces would stay in a support role for as long as it takes? No; he went on to say of the handover of combat duties to the Afghan army: "We will not transition until our Afghan partners are ready."

This has been the problem throughout the Obama recalibration: that the political imperative to show a "light at the end of the tunnel" to domestic opinion, in the US and the UK, conflicts with the military need to show resolve to see the job through. Matt Cavanagh, an adviser to Gordon Brown, makes the point in an article in next month's Prospect that "the messages had gone to the wrong audiences – the insurgency saw the light at the end of the tunnel, while to the public at home Afghanistan still felt like a war without end".

That difficulty is inherent in any process of planned withdrawal. The best answer to it is to make the pull-out quick, which is what The Independent on Sunday advocated last year. Twelve months ago, we suggested setting a date 12 months ahead. Nothing has happened in that year to persuade us that we were mistaken. On the contrary, President Obama was persuaded, palpably against his instincts, to give the military solution one more try. (Gordon Brown was persuaded of the same thing, probably against his same instincts, but as he was agonising over the deployment of 1,000 extra troops, as against 40,000 Americans, it was President Obama's decision that mattered.) This summer was supposed to be the decisive period, but the results have been inconclusive. President Obama has given his generals until next July to make the Afghan surge work, but it is hard to see why continuing with the same policy should produce a different result.

The truth is that the analogy favoured by the generals with the surge in Iraq is flawed. Not least because it was a cover for declaring victory and pulling out. To the extent that the surge was a success, it was not the extra troops alone that secured an improvement in the security situation there: the fresh troops supported a political accommodation with the Sunni insurgency. If there is a lesson of the Iraq experience, it is that a political arrangement needs to be reached with the nationalist forces that are behind most of the Afghan insurgency.

The inevitable focus on military operations at the Nato summit yesterday was therefore misplaced. As Mr Cavanagh argues, if it is evident by July that "Plan A" has not succeeded, the American (and British) senior military "must start working up, in good faith, the alternatives their political leaders ask for, and resist any temptation to encourage – even with their silence – the inevitable stream of chickenhawks and conspiracy theorists complaining that victory would have been assured if only the politicians hadn't once again stabbed our brave boys in the back".

We would only say, "Why wait until July?" Military timetables are largely irrelevant or counter-productive to the achievement of a level of tolerable stability and the containment of any future threat from al-Qa'ida. The search for a political settlement in Afghanistan is what matters, and it must be intensified urgently.

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