US President Barack Obama said on Thursday the US war plan in Afghanistan was “on track,” but somberly warned that gains won by his surge strategy at a heavy human cost were fragile and reversible.
Unveiling a long-awaited policy assessment, Obama said progress was sufficient to permit a “responsible reduction” of US forces to begin in July, though the scope and size of the likely drawdown appear limited.
Despite warning the Afghan war remained a “very difficult endeavor,” Obama said a relentless US operation had placed al-Qaeda under more pressure than ever and argued that surge troops had made “considerable gains” in Afghanistan.
He said al-Qaeda was finding it harder to recruit and plot attacks and had seen key leaders killed, although he warned the group was “ruthless and resilient” and was still planning follow-ups to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“In short, al-Qaeda is hunkered down,” Obama said as he unveiled an unclassified version of the review at the White House, flanked by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The president also said his new strategy, announced a year ago, had forged ahead with Pakistan, saying there was a new recognition in Islamabad of the threat posed by extremist networks in rugged Afghan border regions.
“Nevertheless, progress has not come fast enough, so we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with,” Obama said.
The overview, the result of a two-month National Security Council assessment, said progress in Afghanistan was evident in gains by Afghan and coalition forces against Taliban bastions in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
However, the study was short on details and supporting evidence, and did not include pointed criticisms of the Pakistani and Afghan governments that have featured in US government documents leaked in recent months.
Though it pledged to work with Afghanistan to improve governance and reduce corruption, it did not go into details on countrywide graft, including in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, that many analysts see as endemic to Afghanistan and a severe threat to US goals.
Clinton insisted, however, that the administration was not trying to sugar coat the war effort, after the bloodiest year yet for foreign troops in the nine-year conflict and public US spats with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I don’t think you will find any rosy scenario people in the leadership of this administration, starting with the president,” she said. “This has been a very, very hard-nosed review.”
Obama, under pressure from his liberal base, said when he announced his surge of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan last year that US troops would begin a conditions-based drawdown in July next year.
He argued on Thursday that his target had galvanized US NATO allies into a more urgent effort to ensure Afghans begin to assume control of their own security.
However, senior military figures have appeared uneasy with the July 2011 date, and it appears unlikely that large-scale troop withdrawals will ensue. Gates also said the pace of US redeployments was unclear after next year.
“In terms of what that line looks like beyond July 2011, I think the answer is, we don’t know at this point. But the hope is that as we progress, that those drawdowns will be able to accelerate,” he said.
The report trod carefully on uneasy US anti-terror ally Pakistan, following pointed criticisms of Islamabad’s nuclear safety and other areas of policy revealed in the US cables published by WikiLeaks and other reports.
Progress in the Washington--Islamabad alliance had been “substantial,” but “uneven” in the last year, and some adjustments were necessary, the report said.
“For instance, the denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan,” the report said.
The war faces waning public support: Sixty percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Thursday said they believe that the war is not worth fighting, up 7 points since July.