UPDATE 1-Slow Afghan progress doesn't alter exit plan -Holbrooke

Tue Sep 21, 2010 6:29pm EDT

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(For other news from the Reuters Washington Summit, click here)

* Envoy says Obama did not set "final exit date"

* Test of Afghan government stability - Holbrooke

* Civilian efforts need to move faster (Adds comments from analysts)

By David Alexander

NEW YORK, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Afghanistan is stabilizing more slowly than expected, the chief U.S. envoy for the region said on Tuesday, but that is unlikely to keep President Barack Obama from beginning to withdraw combat troops next year.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said "the only conceivable thing to me is that the president will do what he said he would do" and begin withdrawals in a "careful, responsible manner."

"The president was talking about combat troops and a conditions-based drawdown policy," Holbrooke told the Reuters Washington Summit from New York.

"He did not set a final exit date and he made clear ... that there would be continued economic and development assistance and continued support for the training, equipping and financial support of the army and the police."

Holbrooke, a troubleshooter who began his career in Vietnam and later helped hammer out the Bosnia peace accords, was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly after visiting the scene of disastrous Pakistan flooding and just days after elections in Afghanistan.

With Taliban militants trying to disrupt the election, Saturday's vote in Afghanistan and the eventual declaration of the winners is a test of the Karzai government's stability after last year's fraud-riddled presidential election.

It is also being closely watched before Obama's war strategy review in December, which is likely to determine the pace and scale of U.S. troop withdrawals.

Some 3.6 million Afghans voted despite violence that killed at least 17 people. Nearly 3,000 formal complaints of fraud, intimidation and other issues had been lodged by Tuesday.

Foreign observers said the violence was not as heavy as last year but it was too early to say whether the election was a success.

"IRON LAWS"

"In this no-party system and first-past-the-post system it will take a while to figure out what the shifting alliances are in the national assembly," Holbrooke said.

"So I would draw no conclusions about the outcome in the Western sense that one party won or there will have to be a coalition of three parties. You can't apply any of that to Afghanistan."

Like other U.S. officials, Holbrooke portrayed the carrying out of an election in wartime as a success in and of itself.

"Afghan people don't get enough credit for voting under these circumstances," he said.

With preliminary results not expected until at least Oct. 8, U.S. foreign policy analysts agreed it would take time to understand the vote and its implications for Afghan politics.

Bruce Riedel, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution thinktank, said two factors were troubling: the drop in voter turnout from about 6 million in the last election to about 3.6 million this time and the inability of many Afghans to vote.

"While violence seems to have been less in this election than in August 2009, some of that is because 20 percent of polling stations were closed and that's also not a good sign," Riedel said.

Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the election had little impact on factors that would determine the outcome of the war and were often beyond the control of the national assembly.

"What is far more important to every Afghan, indeed to any effort to win this war, is to find ways to improve the quality of Afghan governance, to improve the services it provides, the level of security it provides," Cordesman said.

Holbrooke acknowledged that some of the civilian elements of the U.S. strategy to stabilize Afghanistan were not moving as quickly as expected, including efforts to reconcile with moderate Taliban fighters and re-integrate them into society.

International donors have contributed some $300 million to a fund to encourage the process and the United States supports President Hamid Karzai's program, he said.

"It is not moving as fast as it should," Holbrooke said.

"One of the iron laws of Afghanistan, it seems to me, is that things move more slowly than people say they will," he said. "The issue isn't 'Are you behind schedule?' ... The issue is 'Are you moving forward?'" (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn in New York and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and John O'Callaghan)

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