Obama: U.S. is "On Track" in Afghanistan

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 1:45 p.m. ET

Following the completion of a new evaluation of the war in Afghanistan, President Obama today said the United States has made "significant progress" there since he laid out a new strategy for the war last year.

"This continues to be a very difficult endeavor," Mr. Obama said. "Thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to meet our goals."

Those goals, Mr. Obama reiterated, are to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda. The mission, the president said, is "not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan. Ultimately, it's not nation building."

A five-page summary of the new, classified evaluation, released by the White House Wednesday, shows the evaluation effectively ensures Mr. Obama will stick to his plan to keep U.S. forces engaged in war in Afghanistan through 2014. U.S. troops are still expected to begin leaving the country in July 2011, but it's unclear how significant the withdrawal will be.

"In terms of when the troops come out, the president has made clear it will be conditions based," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who addressed the evaluation today, along with Mr. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chair General James Cartwright. "In terms of what that looks like beyond 2011, we don't know."

Still, Gates echoed the president's assertion that there has been significant progress. The military progress made in just the past three to four months "has exceeded my expectations," he said. On a recent visit with the troops there, Gates said the "sense of progress among those closest to the fight is palpable."

Led by Mr. Obama's national security staff, with input from government agencies and war zone commanders, the evaluation concluded Mr. Obama's expansion of the war has left the senior leadership of al Qaeda in Pakistan at its weakest since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It's harder for them to recruit, it's harder for them to travel... it's harder for them to plot and launch attacks," Mr. Obama said.

The Taliban has also been weakened over the last 12 months, the report concludes, although it calls those gains "fragile and reversible."

The evaluation makes no direct mention of the corruption problems in Afghanistan's government or the Obama administration's sometimes rocky relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It does, however, say Pakistan must do more to help eliminate terrorists from within its borders.

A bleaker assessment of the war, representing the view of 16 domestic intelligence agencies, was leaked to the New York Times Wednesday, asserting that there's little chance for success in Afghanistan without more cooperation from Pakistan.

Gates and Clinton said the latest assessment in no way paints an unrealistic view of the situation on the ground. Furthermore, they said the United States' relationship and cooperation with Pakistan has improved. Terrorist groups do not have a "free pass" at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Gates said, noting there are 140,000 Pakistani troops there.

"Eighteen months ago, I would've thought that 140,000 troops on the border was an impossibility," he said. "There is increasing cooperation on both sides of the border in coordinating their operations. We expect to see more of that."

Clinton added that the improved relations with Pakistan can also be improved to the United States' stepped up civilian presence in Pakistan. While there were fewer than 320 civilian workers there two years ago, there are now more than 1,000.

The troops on the ground in Afghanistan now number about 100,000.

The administration's evaluation suggests much of the success they've had in disrupting al Qaeda has been the result of counterterrorism efforts, but Clinton said that was no reason to discount the significance of having troops on the ground.

"Certainly, from our perspective, what you call 'counterterrorism' successes are part of the overall effort and cannot be separated out," she said. This was one of the vigorous debates the administration had during its 2009 review of the war strategy, she said.

"It's hard to separate out what's necessary on the ground in order to support counterterrorism efforts and say you can do one without the other," Clinton said.

General Cartwright said the "integrated strategy" of boots on the ground combined with counterterrorism efforts should work in Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan.

"We have the advantage in Afghanistan of having boots on the ground, so we can defeat and not just disrupt" al Qaeda, he said. "We have to get that kind of capability as we look towards Pakistan. That has to be done in partnership with Pakistan. It doesn't mean you have to have American boots on the ground, but you need both."

Since the war in Afghanistan started, more than 2,100 American troops have died. At least 480 American troops have been killed in 2010, making it the deadliest year for U.S. forces in the war since it began.

A CBS News poll from September showed that most Americans - 55 percent - think it is going badly, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

Clinton called that view point "understandable" and said she respects the feelings of the American people. However, she said the administration "will not make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling."

The current administration is trying to build upon a foundation in Afghanistan that's based on decades of mistakes made by previous administrations, she said.

"The question I would ask is, how do you feel about a continuing American commitment that is aimed at protecting you and your family?" she said.

Watch CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin analyze President Obama's remarks on CBSNews.com's "Washington Unplugged":



Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.

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