President Obama has finally made his long-awaited announcement on the future of US strategy in Afghanistan. He's sending an extra 30,000 American troops, with the health warning that they will begin to withdraw in 2011. The decision has met with a sceptical response in Afghanistan itself.
The stated aim of the western military involvement in Afghanistan is to fight Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, and make it harder for Islamist terrorists to attack targets in the west. One of the major criticisms of the increased western involvement in recent months is that now the troops are focusing not just on fighting the west's enemies, but also on trying to protect and strengthen the Afghan government (which, as the controversial recent election showed, is widely corrupt). Critics call it 'mission creep' and accuse Mr Obama and others of trying to find new reasons to justify their involvement in Afghanistan, when they should have pulled out already.
That's believed to be the view of the US Vice-President, Joe Biden. But for leaders like Mr Obama and Gordon Brown, there's more to consider, namely what'll happen when the western troops withdraw. Now that Mr Obama has named 2011 as the start of the end of the mission (as an answer to one of the big criticisms of America's mission in Iraq, namely that there was no exit strategy), that deadline will dominate the way all interested parties act in Afghanistan. And it may end up to the Taliban's advantage.
The Taliban now knows that, if it can avoid complete obliteration over the next couple of years (with help from sympathisers in Pakistan, this shouldn't be a problem), the western troops will go home. Then it can take on the Afghan government. The Taliban did exactly that when it initially seized power in Afghanistan back in 1996. It was a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in which Al Qaeda harboured and trained the terrorists which carried out 9/11.
So, if the US and its allies are unable to help the Afghan government improve its security capabilities sufficiently in the coming months, there could be big trouble ahead. Leaving Afghanistan in 2011 might suit short-term western political opinion, but if the Taliban is able to regain control once the Americans have left, it would probably allow Al Qaeda the opportunity to strengthen, and therefore make a spectacular attack on the US or Europe far more likely. Although it may cause an increase in the human cost in terms of American, British and other international lives, spending the time between now and 2011 putting the Afghans in a position to defeat the Taliban is essential to the ultimate success of the west's mission.