WASHINGTON, (AFP) – President Barack Obama says that the US war plan in Afghanistan is “on track,” but warned that gains won by his surge strategy at a heavy human cost were fragile and reversible.
Unveiling a long-awaited policy assessment on Thursday, Obama said progress was sufficient to permit a “responsible reduction” of US forces to begin in July 2011, though the size of the likely drawdown appeared limited.
The assessment comes one year after Obama announced both a surge of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan and the conditions-based July troop drawdown.
Obama said that a relentless US operation had placed the Al-Qaeda terror network under more pressure than ever, and argued that surge troops had made “considerable gains” in Afghanistan.
He said Al-Qaeda has seen key leaders killed and was finding it harder to recruit followers and plot 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 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Obama however warned that the Afghan war remained a “very difficult endeavor,” and that the “ruthless and resilient” Al-Qaeda was still planning follow-ups to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The president also said that 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 strategy 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.
But 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, the review said little about countrywide graft, including in President Hamid Karzai’s government, that many analysts see as endemic to Afghanistan and a severe threat to US goals.
Clinton insisted however 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 argued that his drawdown target 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 shown unease with the July 2011 date, and it appears unlikely that there will be a large-scale troop withdrawal.
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,” Gates 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.
Critics of US strategy are likely to argue the review leaves key questions unanswered, including whether Afghan military and governing structures will ever be robust enough to secure US gains.
Administration officials have also played down US intelligence reports cited by newspapers, which paint a less optimistic picture of the war than the administration report.
Progress in Afghanistan has come at a high cost: more foreign troops – nearly 700 – have died in 2010 than in any year of the war and Washington has waged public spats with Kabul and Islamabad.
The war also faces waning public support: 60 percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News/Washington Post poll out Thursday believe that the war is not worth fighting, up seven points since July.