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US Withdrawal from Iraq Looms Over Afghan War

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As U.S. combat troops are pulled out of Iraq, attention is turning to Afghanistan.  President Barack Obama has pledged to begin pulling out troops there as well, starting next year.  The Iraq withdrawal might have an effect on political and military calculations by officials in Washington and Kabul, particularly by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.



In announcing the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, President Obama made it clear that Afghanistan's turn is next.

"Next August, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility," he said. "The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure.  But make no mistake - this transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's."

Analysts say the Iraq withdrawal has highlighted for leaders in Iran, Pakistan and other regional states that the United States intends to pull out its forces.

Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says no one is considering the implications more than Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"All of the regional actors now alter their calculus a bit, but none more obviously and skittishly than Karzai because he is really the one whose neck is in the noose.  He is the one who would literally be hanging from a lamppost within a month, let us say, if the U.S. and NATO forces withdrew today.  Or at least that is what I think would happen."

'Morale boost for the Taliban'

President Karzai recently told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation that the withdrawal date is a morale boost for the Taliban.

Larry Goodson says Mr. Karzai might be looking for ways to keep U.S. troops around longer than President Obama and his advisors have planned.

"I think he is looking for the,  'O.K., the U.S. is no longer here or maybe I can, through certain political moves and maneuvers, continue to play the United States and keep them here a bit longer or keep them engaged in some fashion a bit longer.'  I realize I attributed some Machiavellian sort of tendencies to Hamid Karzai.  But I think that he has demonstrated that he has got some political skills," he said.

The U.S.-Karzai relationship has been through some rough patches, especially lately.  President Karzai has been sharply critical of the United States, especially over civilian casualties, and U.S. officials continue to pressure the Afghan leader to clean up corruption in his government. 

Analyst Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress in Washington says the United States has been inconsistent in its approach to President Karzai.

"We have wavered under President Bush and even under President Obama," he said. "One moment it seems like we are reading him the riot act; the next moment we are rolling out the red carpet for him here in Washington, D.C.  And none of it seems to work."

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are radically different, but the overall strategy is similar - to build up indigenous forces to the point that they can handle security duties on their own, thus allowing U.S. troops to go home.  But many analysts voice concern about when or if Afghan security forces will be capable to stand on their own.

The presence of Taliban sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan remains a nagging issue.  

Analyst Brian Katulis says the handling of the matter of Pakistan has been what he terms a quiet success for the Obama administration.  He says the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was "hanging by a thread" in 2007, but that Pakistan has since become more energetic about taking on the militants.

"So there has been a much more aggressive counter-terrorism approach," said Katulis. "There has been an outreach to a range of Pakistani leaders to take a different approach.  They have changed."

"They have not changed 100 percent, but they have moved in the right sort of direction.  And I think what we need to see, and ultimately a key to Afghanistan and our ability to complete the mission there, is actually getting actors like Pakistan to play a more responsible role.  And I think we have taken some modest steps in the right direction there," he added.

But Taliban fighters have not reduced their attacks on international forces, although the coming winter is expected to slow them down.  Many analysts say the Taliban wants to keep up the pressure on the Karzai government until the United States and its allies leave and then try to strike a political deal with President Karzai, or whoever is in charge of the Afghan government at the time.

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