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Obama's missing timetable for Afghanistan

With a coming NATO summit, he must be clear on his goals for a war that isn't going well.

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Few doubts exist that Barack Obama will pull the US out of Iraq. But when will the US exit Afghanistan? That depends on what he wants to leave behind in the former Al Qaeda haven. By April, when Mr. Obama goes to a NATO summit, he must form a consensus on Afghanistan's future to create a US path out of this historic quagmire country.

Before his election, Mr. Obama talked of a need for democracy in a land that had largely been ruled by kings, warlords, and Islamists before the 2001 US-led invasion. But that Bush-era goal of Western-style, peaceful government in a medieval and tribal culture seems far more fragile these days.

The government of President Hamid Karzai, elected in 2004, is weak and largely confined to the capital, Kabul. The former rulers, the Taliban, are rising in strength despite the efforts by some 70,000 NATO troops, nearly half of them American. This week, Afghan officials were forced to postpone a presidential election set for May to August because of violence and inadequate preparation.

A US downgrade of expectations for Afghanistan began when Obama said in his inaugural address that he hoped merely to "forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan." During her confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton described Afghanistan as a "narco-state plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption."

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