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Published: Monday, 1/17/2011

Troop movements

Vice President Joe Biden recently reiterated the Obama Administration's intent to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year. In Afghanistan, by contrast, he made a puzzling statement that sounded as if the United States could be there forever.

Mr. Biden's overseas representation of the United States, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is generally useful. He is experienced in foreign affairs, and is close to President Obama's views on such issues.

He also has a tendency to respond with unhelpful spontaneity to people and situations he encounters overseas. The trip he has just completed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan is an example of that.

The United States has 55,000 troops in Iraq, all scheduled to be out by the end of this year. That is what the Iraqi government wants.

In Afghanistan, the administration offers sliding policy statements that reflect tension between military and civilian elements. The shortest timeline offered is a withdrawal of the nearly 100,000 troops there beginning in July. Mr. Obama has moved the marker by suggesting that the overall withdrawal could take until 2014.

During his visit, Mr. Biden potentially stretched the U.S. presence beyond 2014. He declared that “we are not leaving if you don't want us to leave,” suggesting that the troop presence could be extended endlessly.

Of course, he and Mr. Obama might not be in office after 2012, making his assurances to President Hamid Karzai meaningless. And both the state of America's economy and the will of its people might not sustain U.S. involvement in Afghanistan until 2014, much less past that date.

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