Afghan War Review Cements Withdrawal Plan

generic Obama Afghanistan CBS/ AP

Updated at 12:43 p.m. ET

President Obama's expansion of the war in Afghanistan has eroded the power of the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked America in 2001 and the resurgent Taliban militants who gave them cover, according to his own government's review. The findings ensure that Mr. Obama will stay the course, with U.S. forces to remain at war through 2014.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Mr. Obama said the war in Afghanistan remains "a very difficult endeavor" but the nation is on track to achieve its goals.

"We are on track to achieve our goals," Mr. Obama said from the White House.

The president said the U.S. has made "significant progress" in disrupting the al Qaeda network that attacked America.

"Al Qaeda is hunkered down," Mr. Obama said. "It will take time to ultimately defeat al Qaeda and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking our country. But make no mistake. We are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization."

Nonetheless, this year has been the deadliest in the war for U.S. forces. At least 480 American troops have been killed.

Special Report: Afghanistan

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said key parts of the administration's strategy are "working well", she made sure to point out, without using President George W. Bush's name, that the war started during his term.

"This administration, I think it is fair to remind us all, inherited an extraordinarily difficult situation," said Clinton. "There was no coherent strategy to unify America's efforts in the region. There was no clearly defined mission, and our people — both our military and our civilian forces — lacked the resources they needed to get any progress accomplished. Today we have a very different story to tell."

U.S. troops will begin to leave Afghanistan in July, according to the report, the same timeline that Mr. Obama promised one year ago and has consistently upheld in recent weeks. But the scope and pace of that withdrawal remain unclear, and both are expected to be modest, given the enormity of the security and governance challenges in Afghanistan.

All the findings will be tested in the months and years to come. They form the basis not just of Mr. Obama's war strategy but also his credibility with the American people on how this long, costly war is going - and when it will end.

The United States and its NATO allies hope to turn control of the Afghanistan conflict to that nation's own forces by the end of 2014, a timeline endorsed in the new review. Even then, Mr. Obama envisions an enduring U.S. role in Afghanistan.

The White House released a five-page summary of the newly finished, classified evaluation of the war strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that Mr. Obama unveiled to much fanfare in December 2009.

The most promising conclusions are that the senior leadership of al Qaeda in Pakistan is at it weakest since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - and that the Taliban, a constant source of violence and instability in Afghanistan, has seen much of its power halted and reversed over the last 12 months.

Rep. Ike Skelton, the longtime chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who lost his bid for re-election this year, said Mr. Obama's strategy leaves unanswered questions.

"There is no clear outline of how our progress in the region can become sustainable, or how the Afghan government and security forces can prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from re-establishing safe havens in the long term," said Skelton, D-Mo.

Mr. Obama, inheriting a war he considered adrift but vital to American security, ordered a heightened U.S. presence and a renewed commitment to supporting Afghanistan's development. There are now roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as 40,000 from NATO allies.

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The report suggests that the gains against the Taliban "remain fragile and reversible."

Yet more emphasis is given to descriptions of progress.

"The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced Taliban influence," the summary says.

That is a reference mainly to the 30,000 additional forces that Obama ordered a year ago.

The review says progress is most clear in the way Afghan and coalition forces are "clearing the Taliban heartland" in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and in the boosted size and capability of Afghanistan's security forces.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told U.S. troops in Kandahar on Thursday that he considers the fight in Afghanistan's South to be a harbinger of how the wider war will go.

"We've got the right people in you," Mullen said. "We've got the right strategy."

Afghan army and police are scheduled to grow to more than 300,000 troops over the next two years. They face an estimated 25,000-30,000 Taliban guerrillas and other rebels.

There were no direct references to the corruption that plagues Afghanistan's government or the fractured relationship between the Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Obama called Karzai on Thursday to discuss the review. A statement released by Karzai's office said both presidents agreed that security gains had been made in some areas and that long-term success required focusing on militants' sanctuaries, which are in neighboring Pakistan. Karzai also updated Mr. Obama on efforts to reconcile with insurgents who lay down their arms, embrace the Afghan constitution and sever ties with terrorists.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Thursday that his country has "more realistic expectations" for Afghanistan - no longer expecting good governance but the more achievable goal of "good-enough governance."

On al Qaeda, the White House review speaks of major progress in dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership of the terror network.

"Most important, al Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001," the report finds. It warns that the U.S. is still the principal target for al Qaeda, and that "Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11."

The United States has lasting trouble in ridding Pakistan of its havens for terrorists.

The report raises that sore point by saying Pakistan must provide more help in solving the problem, particularly in the dangerous border zone with Afghanistan.

That assessment is in line with a less optimistic reports on the war effort leaked to the New York Times on Wednesday.

The reports, called National Intelligence Estimates, represent the consensus view of 16 domestic intelligence agencies without military input, the Times reports. Members of the House and Senate committees who read the reports described them to the Times.

Mr. Obama is expected to visit Pakistan next year. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has improved substantially in the last year - but the progress has been uneven, the report finds. The U.S. government is pledging improvements in 2011.

As plotting of terrorism against the United States continues, the defeat of al Qaeda will be best achieved by forcefully destroying the group's sanctuaries and killings its leaders, the report says. Throughout, however, the report calls for sustained U.S. help in developing Afghanistan and Pakistan for its people, not just waging a military campaign.

Obama's comments from the White House briefing room didn't take on the tone of a major presidential address. He ceded the spotlight quickly to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Clinton and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will field questions from reporters.

This year has been the deadliest in the war for U.S. forces. At least 480 American troops have been killed in 2010, and more than 2,100 have died since the conflict began in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

The review took place over the last two months, led by Obama's national security staff, with input from across government agencies and from commanders in the war zones.

Separately, new U.S. national intelligence estimates of Afghanistan and Pakistan paint bleak pictures of security conditions inside Afghanistan and of Pakistan's willingness to rout militants on its side of the border, according to several U.S. officials briefed on both reports. U.S. military commanders have challenged the conclusions, saying they are based on outdated information that does not take into account progress made over this past fall.
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