A senior U.S. general has expressed concern that President Barack Obama's July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing troops out of Afghanistan is encouraging the Taliban.
General James Conway, head of the U.S. Marine Corps, also warned that it would likely take a few years before southern Afghanistan is secure enough for the Marines to leave.
Speaking at an August 24 press conference in Washington following a visit to Afghanistan, Conway expressed concern the deadline may signal to the Taliban that the United States was preparing to wind down the war.
"In terms of the July issue, you know, I think if you follow it closely, and of course we all do, we know the president was talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments on July 2011," Conway said.
"In some ways, we think, right now, it's probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he [the enemy] may be saying to himself -- in fact we've intercepted communications that say, 'Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.'"
Afghan security analyst and former senior military officer Amrullah Aman agrees, telling RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that despite "all these comments from European countries and America, I think they will withdraw only a small number of troops. I am confident that they will fill the gap with new forces, but it will increase the morale of the enemy and will give their recruitment a boost."
Conway's assessment is expected to fuel debate over Obama's war strategy, providing ammunition for U.S. politicians who have criticized the deadline as showing a lack of resolve.
Obama has said security conditions would determine how many U.S. troops can leave Afghanistan, and how fast. He and his supporters defend the deadline as a way of pushing Afghan leaders to act quickly to take charge of their security.
But Conway said Afghan units "somewhere" may be able to take the lead in security, but not in the south.
Speaking of Marines in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the general, who is due to retire in the fall, said Afghan National Army and police forces will not be ready to take over from foreign troops for at least "a few years."
For that reason, he said he wants to prepare Marines for the likelihood that the war will continue past the 2011 deadline.
'Blow To Morale'
Conway added that Taliban fighters would likely suffer a blow to morale when they find that no major withdrawal is on the horizon among U.S. forces deployed in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.
"If you accept what I offered earlier as true, that Marines will be there after 2011, OK, after the middle of 2011, what's the enemy going to say then? You know, what is he going to say to his foot troops, where you've got the leadership outside the country trying to direct operations within because it's too dangerous for them to be there?" Conway said.
"And the foot troops have been believing what he's saying, that they're all going to leave in the summer of next year, and come the fall we're still there hammering them like we have been. I think it could be very good for us in that context."
Foreign troops fighting the Taliban operate under U.S. and NATO command against a Taliban-led insurgency that has been strengthening.
Reports say some 460 of the international soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year, compared with 520 for the whole of last year.
Conway announced that 30,000 U.S. troops had arrived in Afghanistan earlier this month, putting the number of U.S. troops close to 100,000.
He spoke a day after Lieutenant General William Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission and of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, said Afghanistan remains more than a year away from building a security force with enough soldiers and police to protect the country.
with agency reports