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On a mild mid-December morning, the chairman of US joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, strolled through a humble market in Nawa. Mullen was in the heart of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold where US marines have spent months fighting – and dying – to pacify. Just a few months earlier, Nawa’s market was nearly abandoned. But this past summer, a marine operation cleared the area. Now the place is safe enough that even America’s top-ranking military officer was able to sample its market wares – everything from soda pop and candy to shampoo and bananas – without wearing a flak jacket.

Admittedly, that was possible only because Mullen was flanked by a fearsome contingent of rifle-bearing combat troops. But, speaking to reporters, he said the American presence in the area was focused on building up Afghan security forces so they can handle security for themselves. “The plan for all of us is to transition security to the local forces,” Mullen said. “I am confident the Afghan national security forces will be able to do this job.”

This was in keeping with the vision Barack Obama offered in his 1 December speechannouncing 30,000 more troops for Afghanistan. Along with those troops – and another 7,000 from Nato – came a pledge to start transferring security duties to the Afghans and begin withdrawing US forces by July 2011. That raised the hope that an end to America’s eight-year entanglement with Afghanistan might be in view. For Europe, where doubts about the war run even higher than in the States, that day can’t come soon enough, a point underscored when Mullen visited French troops stationed near Kabul. “I’m reminded in particular of the 10 [French] soldiers that were lost out here about a year ago,” he said.

But a few days of travel in the country offers a different view. Consider the perspective of Brigadier General Maharuddin Ghori, commander of Afghan forces around Nawa. He told reporters it may be five years before Afghan troops can assume security duties from the Americans. (An off-message Afghan President Hamid Karzai said much the same earlier this month, standing alongside an unhappy US defence secretary Robert Gates in Kabul.) If he’s right – and there is ample reason to think so – then Obama has to make a choice. He can mount a quick surge in Afghanistan and leave. Or he can commit America to staying until the Afghans can defend themselves from the Taliban. But he can’t do both. And neither option will make his difficult presidency any easier.

After nearly a year in office, Obama is a bruised figure. His once luminous approval ratings have dimmed. Unemployment is stuck above 10%. A kind of psychosis grips segments of the US polity, fuelled by demagogues such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. And 2010 may be no easier. Obama won a vague international commitment on climate change in Copenhagen this month, but passing substantive cap-and-trade legislation through Congress next year will be politically treacherous, if it can be done at all. Yes, he won his healthcare reform vote last week, but dissent on both left and right has turned public opinion against the measure, possibly granting him a pyrrhic victory. (The bill’s passage is still not guaranteed, moreover.) With Obama’s party poised for severe losses in next year’s midterm elections, it’s little wonder several vulnerable House Democrats have announced their retirements this year rather than face an angry electorate.

And now comes the Afghanistan escalation. Obama can look forward to spending much of 2010 explaining bad news to an already sceptical America. More troops and a harder fight against the Taliban will surely bring more casualties. “I think 2010 will be a pretty violent year,” Mullen said earlier this month. An expensive one, too. To fund continued operations in Afghanistan, Obama may ask Congress for close to $100bn in spending. Simply getting that money will be a political struggle; even the Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has said Obama will have to lobby House members himself, because she refuses to do it.

But for Obama’s surge to succeed, the money will be needed. As Mullen crisscrossed Afghanistan to survey the war effort, the sheer scale of the place became astoundingly clear. On Tuesday he was flying by Black Hawk helicopter east from Kabul across snow-covered peaks into the eastern province of Paktika. On Thursday, he was hundreds of miles away, choppering across the Mars-like red desert of southern Kandahar province en route to Nawa. Larger than Iraq, Afghanistan presents a new array of logistical as well as tactical challenges.

It is also a place in extreme need. Everywhere Mullen went, Afghans asked for more US help. In the Mata Khan district of Paktika, a tribal elder complained to the grave-faced general about the lack of jobs for young men and said he needed help with education and improving production of onions and potatoes. Mullen wasn’t making specific promises but said: “I would just re-emphasise the commitment that we have.” His message: America would not abandon places like Mata Khan.

Talk of America’s long-term commitment may not be what antiwar liberals want to hear. But in the days after Obama’s speech, his senior cabinet officials made it clear that the notion of major withdrawals in July 2011 was more rhetoric than reality. “I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving,” secretary of state Hillary Clinton testified just a couple of days later. Gates went further, suggesting that Obama could reconsider the deadline altogether. “We’re not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away,” explained the influential secretary of defence.

Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen struck the same note in Kabul last week: “I know some are wondering how long international forces will stay; they are worried we will leave too soon,” he said. “Let there be no doubt – the international community will stand with you and help in rebuilding your country until you are ready to stand on your own and ensure that terrorism will never take root again.”

The July 2011 deadline grew all the more dubious after David Rodriguez, the second-ranking US commander in Afghanistan, told reporters it would likely take nine to 11 months for the entire contingent of 30,000 new troops to be in place. (The White House had suggested that the surge could nearly be completed within six months.)

If that timeline is correct, the top US commander in Iraq, Stanley McChrystal, won’t be operating at maximum capacity until August at the earliest and possibly as late as October 2010. That leaves him less than a year to break the Taliban’s momentum and train up Afghan forces before July 2011 – almost surely not enough time to make the Afghans self-sufficient.

Strategic thinkers in Washington, like Clinton and Gates, understand this. But US public patience with this war is wearing thin. And given the difficulties Obama has faced on healthcare, the economy and global warming, this is not a president with capital to burn.

Come 2011, Obama may have to concede that his timeline was optimistic, that no significant drawdown can begin without “throwing these guys into the swimming pool”. That will mean asking more money and lives of a fatigued public. Or, he may conclude that the gains of a long investment in Afghanistan are outweighed by the cost and the threat to his prospects of a second term in the White House. That may require admitting a measure of failure in Afghanistan.

Perhaps that’s what Mullen was thinking when a reporter asked what worries him most about the war effort. “It’s just the clock,” Mullen replied. “Can we move as fast as we need to?” Or, he might have said, as fast as his embattled president requires.

People in the region wonder what this will all mean on the ground and what will the repercussions be for the region. As locals are worried that they will get caught in the crossfire or killed by drones, experts question whether the strategy is the correct one or if it’s too little too late.