Obama: Gains in Afghanistan fragile as Taliban remains "robust"

President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the NATO Summit in Chicago, Monday, May 21, 2012.
AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato
President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the NATO Summit in Chicago, Monday, May 21, 2012.
AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

(CBS News) In a press conference marking the end of this year's NATO Summit, President Obama on Monday touted the group's formal agreement for a "responsible" withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, and said that while gains in the country remain "fragile," he does not believe there will ever be an "optimal point" to withdraw.

"There is genuine improvement in the performance of Afghan National Security Forces, but the Taliban is still a robust enemy and the gains are still fragile," Mr. Obama told reporters in Chicago, where he hosted this year's two-day meeting.

Added the president: "I don't think that there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say, this is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up our equipment and go home. This is a process and it's sometimes a messy process."

NATO leaders formally agreed Monday to Mr. Obama's timetable to turn primary security responsibilities in Afghanistan over to the Afghan people by the end of December 2014, pledging in a group declaration that the withdrawal would be done "gradually and responsibly" over the next two years. The alliance's 28 members also agreed that the transition would be "irreversible" and discussed how to build on the NATO-Afghanistan partnership going forward.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan "will not mark the end of Afghanistan's challenges," nor would it mark the end of America's partnership with the country.

"We leave Chicago with a clear road map. Our coalition is committed to this plan to bring our war in Afghanistan to a responsible end," Mr. Obama said. "We also agreed on what NATO's relationship with Afghanistan will look like after 2014. NATO will continue to train, advise, and assist and support Afghan forces as they grow stronger." '

The transition is slated to begin in 2013, when Afghan security forces are expected to officially take the lead on combat operations. Not all countries involved will be abiding by the same timeline, however: Newly-inaugurated French President Francois Hollande has affirmed that he plans to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, earlier than his predecessor had intended to do so.

When asked if the withdrawal was premature given the continued presence of the Taliban, Mr. Obama argued that further prolonging the drawdown would be unproductive at best.

"The Afghan security forces themselves will not ever be prepared if they don't start taking that responsibility," Mr. Obama said. "Frankly, the large footprint that we have in Afghanistan can over time be counterproductive."

Pointing potential to concerns among Afghan citizens over sovereignty, as well as America's domestic interests, Mr. Obama said that after ten years, "that's a strain."

"We've been there 10 years - 10 years in a country that's very different," he said.

The president acknowledged that the transition would not be without difficult moments.

"I think the timetable we've established is a sound one, it's a responsible one," he said. "Are there risks involved in it? Absolutely. Can I anticipate that over the next two years there are going to be some bad moments along with some good ones? Absolutely."

Mr. Obama also detailed a conversation he had with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday while the leaders were about to take a group photo.

"Keep in mind my conversation with the President Zardari was very brief," Mr. Obama said. "I emphasized to him what we have emphasized publicly as well as privately. We think that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan, that it is in our national interest to see a Pakistan that is Democratic, that is prosperous and that is stable."

Mr. Obama said Zardari "shared with me his belief that these issues can get worked through." He said they never expected to resolve a stalemate over a deal to reopen a NATO supply routes through Pakistan during the summit, but "we're actually making diligent progress on it."

Two senior administration officials told CBS News Monday that a deal over the supply routes is very close and could come "in the very near future," according to one national security official.