During his election campaign, Mr. Obama promised a fairly rapid exit for US forces from Iraq. The war there was unpopular and seemed to be headed in no particular direction. It had already taken a heavy toll of American lives, and resistance to continued involvement was building up in the USA. Now President Obama has indicated that a new phase in Iraq is around the corner. Combat operations by US troops will end by August 2010. US forces will be scaled down, though up to 50,000 troops will remain until December 2011. Thus the US commitment is set to decrease very substantially. It is not only a reduction of numbers but also a difference in the duties of the troops who remain, for they will not be expected to continue the combat role of today. With this announcement, President Obama can claim to have redeemed his electoral pledge on Iraq. Yet what he has announced has its critics. Some see it as too little and too slow: the disenchantment with the war is such that many Americans would prefer to see a more decisive break. Questions have also been raised about the role of the 50,000 troops who are to remain in Iraq: what would be their role, and would their presence attract hostile attention and draw them into unwanted engagements. Another cause for concern is that nothing has been made known about the future tasks of the mercenaries and contractors who have been inducted into Iraq, believed to number in the region of 150,000. Nor does the withdrawal plan meet all the demands of the Iraqis. There are bitter divisions among them on many issues but all seem united in desiring that the US presence should be eliminated as soon as possible. This applies as much to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government as it does to the various militias in the field: they all consider that the first imperative is the early removal of the US presence. This announcement of withdrawal looks like the first step towards the end of a war that has achieved little but has caused huge loss and damage. Iraq has suffered unimaginable harm from being the battleground for an extremely violent resistance to a detested invasion, resistance not so much by the regular army as by the many irregular militias that sprang up to oppose the invaders. Interspersed with that confrontation was fierce sectarian strife among different Iraqi groups. The fighting has badly damaged the infrastructure, to the extent that even after several years of attempted rebuilding, it is still far below the level reached when the invasion took place - and that, too, was attained only after years of painful reconstruction of facilities shattered in the first Gulf war. Much worse is the human loss. Statistics of losses of foreign personnel have been widely publicized and they add up to several thousands. The losses of Iraqi nationals are on a different scale altogether. One survey conducted in 2006 estimates a figure of as much as 600,000. To get over losses on this scale and begin to reconstruct a shattered country is a challenge that the democratic regime will face. The late Saddam Hussein with his iron fist was able to achieve extraordinary results in highly adverse circumstances. The task will be more difficult for the present Iraqi government which is yet to emerge from the shadow of US control. Another complicating factor is the way in which Iraqi society has been fragmented along confessional lines. In the Middle East, the model for such a breakup is Lebanon, where over a dozen groups, large and small, have been identified with claims of one sort or other to positions in parliament, the administration, the armed forces and civil services, and so on. This has worked in Lebanon, but it has never been easy, and is prone to breakdown. Nothing comparable had been seen in Iraq where no special provisions of this nature were formally written in, except in the case of the Kurds. It is feared by some that the fragmentation implied in this process could adversely affect national cohesion which has been under conspicuous strain for so many years. Many formerly mixed neighbourhoods have become ethnically or religiously uniform as minorities have felt it necessary to move to safer locations among persons of their own kind. According to some observers, this process has been promoted by US decisions aiding one side or other for short term local security gains. Apart from separating communities from each other, dubious local strong men have been created who prey on civilians within their reach. Despite these and many other shortcomings, and notwithstanding the doubtful legacy it will hand down, the US-led coalition seems to feel it can leave Iraq with some aura of success. Violence is much reduced from its peak a couple of years ago, which encourages the belief that the Iraqi authorities will be able to cope with law-and-order issues without external aid. Not that it is a peaceful land now: US lives continue to be lost, suicide attacks take their toll particularly on Iraqi security personnel, civilians are as ever the biggest sufferers. Yet there is a sense that matters have been improved by adopting better tactics. A key part was the 'surge' that brought in more US troops at a time when domestic support for such a move was waning. With it, more effective ways were implemented of dealing with the daily threats, and also of co-opting local supporters of the foreign presence. Whether this is a permanent turnaround remains to be seen but for the present the foreign forces are considerably more comfortable than they were. The credit for devising this more effective strategy is given to Gen. Petraeus who has acquired a formidable reputation as a counter-insurgency specialist. What also remains to be seen is how far these supposed gains in Iraq will affect the strategies adopted in Afghanistan. These two simultaneous wars have had a marked impact on each other. The relatively painless ousting of the Taliban from Afghanistan, and the cheerful welcome given to the foreign invaders by the local population provided an apparent model for Iraq too, and in the early stages it seemed to be working. But that did not last and before long a totally different type of war came into being. In Afghanistan, too, the early euphoria was soon dissipated and the routed Taliban came back into the reckoning, to the point that now they appear more formidable than ever. There may be a temptation for the USA to apply what can be presented as the lessons of Iraq to the security challenges of Afghanistan. But the two are very different, and drawing on the earlier experience in this fashion may just magnify the current problem. The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary. The Statesmen of India also published this article today