Leading article: The Afghan strategy is finally beginning to shift

The West is looking to create the conditions that will allow withdrawal

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Whatever you may think of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan – and most of the governments with Nato forces there can barely disguise their exasperation with him – you have to respect his determination to hang on to power. Yesterday in his investiture as president for a second term he set out to answer the western calls on him to root out corruption and extend democracy after his widely disputed re-election.

Declaring that he would shortly be holding a conference to find new ways to combat the corruption that has so marked his first term; he invited his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, to work with the new government; called for a "loya jirga", or tribal gathering, to help bring peace and, most significantly for the British Prime Minister and the US President, he indicated that he wanted Afghan forces to be able to take over from the coalition troops within five years.

Whether he can actually, or indeed has the will, to effect all these initiatives may be doubted. He is a politician who has promised much in the past and failed to deliver. But his intentions undoubtedly chime in with the new tone on Afghanistan coming from Washington and even more from London in the last few weeks. Gone is the talk of us being "in it for the long haul", of keeping troops there for 20 years or doing "whatever it takes".

Instead what we are witnessing is an effort by Nato's leaders to create the conditions under which they might honourably withdraw their forces within a reasonable time. President Karazai's suggestion of five years would fit this bill quite nicely and, indeed, may well have been made after consultation with western capitals.

The conditions for honourable withdrawal are gradually being outlined. A "reformed" Karzai administration is one of them. The allies are desperately anxious to try and show that the country in which they are spilling so much blood is on a path towards sustainable democracy and freedom. But there is less talk of imposing democracy from the centre and more – belatedly but correctly – of trying to nurture it with local elections and initiatives.

At the same time, there is growing shift in emphasis away from the outright defeat of the Taliban to securing stability in the main centres and training up the Afghans to take over as soon as possible. Talking to the so-called "moderate" Taliban and trying to drag them into the democratic process provides an extra plank. Meanwhile Pakistan has been encouraged, and supplied, to take on the Taliban on its side of the border, while President Obama is mulling over a surge of additional troops to take the military initiative, at least over the short term.

Taken together these measures add up to a potentially effective way forward for the country. Critics of the whole enterprise in the West may talk blithely of ending it forthwith but for Nato to announce that it will withdraw tomorrow, or even to set a firm departure date, would be tantamount to declaring defeat. It would embolden our enemies and could result in a collapse of security within the country and in neighbouring Pakistan. Most important, it would betray the trust that the Afghans have placed in us.

A broad-based civilian/military strategy with moderated ambitions may not prove successful in all respects. For understandable reasons Washington and London are reluctant to talk of exits or timetables. But this evolving plan would seem to hold out the best chance of achieving the stability we need to – eventually – withdraw.

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