During his recent visit to Kabul, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that the United States is well positioned to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July this year. He cautioned that any reduction in the US troops would likely be small and that a substantial force will remain in combat for the rest of 2011. Fresh proclamations by a number of US officials indicating Americas stay beyond 2014 have raised many eyebrows. The articulation of a plan for establishing permanent bases in Afghanistan has also not gone down well, especially with those who wished for an early and happy ending of this sordid conflict. Though saner voices are screaming that the American administration is broke, Pentagons budget request for FY 2012 seeks an additional funding of over $100 billion for the Afghan war. Besides prohibitive financial tag, the war is a cause of colossal loss of lives. The unwillingness of US officials to see the reality is having a telling effect; it took 2,520 days of the war to take 500 American lives and just 627 days for the next 500. However, the suffering experienced by ordinary Afghans is even greater. Around 2,500 non-combatants were killed and 4,000 wounded during the first 10 months of 2010. According to a report prepared by the United Nations, targeted killings of civilians in Afghanistan doubled last year. So, the rate of Afghan civilian deaths is up by 20 percent in 2011 compared to the year before. According to the International Council on Security and Development, 90 percent of the Afghan territory is now under the control of the insurgents. Thus, questions are being asked about why the US soldiers are dying at such a fast pace and whether there is any rationale for spending about $200 billion a year on an un-winnable war? General David Petraeus is working overtime to convince the Americans that the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan have made more progress than has been reported in the media. Speaking to The New York Times in an interview, he said in addition to progress in Afghanistans southern regions, the forces have stopped or reversed Taliban advances in Kabul as well as in the countrys northern and western parts. The momentum of the Taliban has been halted in much of the country and reversed in some important areasThe Taliban have never been under the pressure that they were put under over the course of the last 8 to 10 months, he told the Times. Petraeus said US Special Operations forces and coalition commandos were involved in more than 1,600 operations in the three months prior to March, resulting in the capture or killing of about 3,000 insurgents. In fact, there is an unending chain of killing innocent children, women and non-combatant men through application of disproportionate force by ISAF/NATO and then apologising for it. The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which provides security advice for organisations operating on the ground in Afghanistan, said in its quarterly report: No matter how authoritative the source of any such claim [of progress], messages of this nature are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion. While addressing the Asia Society, Hillary Clinton emphasised on the three surges - military offensive against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, civil sector capacity building and intensified diplomatic push - to bring the Afghan conflict to an end. These three surges are a part of Obamas vision for transition that would see troop reductions begin in July this year and end in 2014. Hillary sidestepped the daunting reality of proliferation of insurgency to new areas, and its pattern of cutting across ethnic lines. Nevertheless, she repeated the rote line that the tribal areas along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain the epicentre of violent extremism. Though Washington has little hope of an outright victory in the long war, India is struggling to fit in the American shoes and extend its strategic outreach to Afghanistan. Iran is jockeying between Pakistan and China on the one hand, and India and Russia on the other, to balance the ethnic and sectarian fallout from post-US Afghanistan. Pakistan aims for a friendly government in Kabul. Meanwhile, Russia wants to fixate America on long-term basis; it has begun to enjoy the American agony. Effective COIN is waged alongside a credible local partner, a government that commands the respect and authority of its citizens. As regards the legitimacy of the government in Afghanistan, Dexter Filkins recently reported for the The New Yorker: Graft infests nearly every interaction between the Afghan state and its citizens.The Afghan government does not so much serve the people as prey upon them. He categorises the Afghan government as a vertically integrated criminal enterprisePolitics and business in Kabul are increasingly dominated by criminal networks and their patrons in the Afghan government. A November 2010 survey by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research found that favourable opinion about America has dipped to an all-time low of 43 percent among the Afghans. A CNN opinion research poll last December found that 63 percent Americans now oppose the war and share the Afghan opinion that the troops should leave. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates have called for dialogue with the moderate Taliban. Whether the Taliban are willing to talk to them is a different matter. They have made it clear that there cannot be any talks unless the occupation forces leave Afghanistan. Several reports show that while the Americans have lost the war, they still want to stay in Afghanistan; hence, there are desperate attempts to strike a deal with the Taliban. They have even hinted that they would be prepared to accept a power sharing agreement with the militants. A report published by Steve Coll in The New Yorker indicates that the Obama administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders. The discussions are believed to be of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation. Since mid-2010, the situation has tilted in favour of the Taliban. There is likelihood of heightened military operations as soon as spring sets in. The Taliban have already stepped up attacks against usual targets in Afghanistan. The fundamental challenge for American policymakers is to reconcile the rhetoric and reality. They need to seize the opportunity and leave by 2014. Their intent and actions should conjointly focus at withdrawal. Sending a positive signal one day, and contradicting it the next day would further erode USAs rating amongst the Afghan people. Indeed, time for an honourable exit is running out. n The writer is a retired Air Commodore of Pakistan Air Force. Email: khalid3408@gmail.com