Retreating armies make easy targets, as the British learned to their cost when falling back from Kabul in 1842. Barack Obama, unlikely heir to bumbling General “Elphy Bey” Elphinstone, now faces two not dissimilar challenges: how to get US forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq with the minimum of bloodshed and the maximum of dispatch. Avoiding descent into post-withdrawal chaos would be an added bonus.
Easy answers are not available. In Afghanistan, several factors suggest Obama may speed up the size and pace of troop reductions due to begin next month. The mind-boggling cost of the war, estimated at $2bn a week or $110bn a year, is increasingly insupportable as his 2012 re-election bid looms. Americans, like Britons, are also sickened by the continuing human cost.