General Petraeus laid out clear-cut benchmarks that would indicate signs of progress with the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the lead up to the December review at an inter-agency meeting at the White House on Monday, according to today’s New York Times. In addition to the number of Afghan forces trained and military operations against key Taliban strongholds, he pointed to local security initiatives run by the Afghan police, the pace of reintegration of former members of the Taliban, and success of attacks carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces as indicators to watch in the next few months.

Petraeus predicted that by December, when a thorough review of the U.S. strategy is due, President Obama would be able to point to signs of progress, such as strengthened security in and around Kabul and Kandahar City and the reintegration of a significant number of Taliban fighters into the political mainstream.

Gen. Petraeus’ no-nonsense, methodical approach to assessing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will be unwelcome to those hoping U.S. leaders would soon decide that the war is unwinnable and thus begin a rapid drawdown of U.S. troops. It will also take the air out of the room for those calling on the U.S. to strike a grand bargain with the Taliban leadership.

Rather than striking an early political deal with the Taliban before the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has had time to bear fruit, Petraeus is focused on “reintegration” of Taliban at the local level. His distinction between “reintegration” at the local level and “reconciliation” with the top leadership will be welcomed by the Afghan people, most of whom do not support the Taliban’s ideology but are incapable of resisting them on their own militarily.

Some Afghans worry that a politically weak Karzai will seek a deal with the Taliban leadership and Pakistan Army that would sacrifice Afghan national interests – particularly relating to rights of women and ethnic minorities — to save his own skin. The fundamental point is that any reintegration or reconciliation process should not legitimize the Taliban’s ruthless ideology nor allow Afghanistan to backtrack from the gains it has made with regard to human rights and democracy over the last nine years.

General Petraeus’ leadership on Afghanistan is reassuring. But what the American people need to hear most is President Obama explaining the stakes in Afghanistan. He needs to renounce the arbitrary July 2011 withdrawal deadline and remind the American people that if the U.S. departs the region before the situation in Afghanistan is stabilized and the government capable of resisting the Taliban on its own, the result will be a downward spiral of violence, leading to the eventual collapse of the government and the reassertion of Taliban rule. The Taliban would again be in a position to provide sanctuary to al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups intent on attacking the U.S. and to project their influence back across the border into nuclear-armed Pakistan.