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Obama says too early to declare victory in Afghanistan

UPDATED 2:01 p.m. ET
President Barack Obama pauses before answering a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 29, 2011.
President Barack Obama pauses before answering a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 29, 2011. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

President Obama on Wednesday said "the tide of war is receding" in Afghanistan, but it is too soon to declare victory.

"Our work is not done," Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House during the 14th formal news conference of his presidency.

Mr. Obama last week said his "surge" of 33,000 troops sent to Afghanistan beginning in late 2009 will be withdrawn by September of next year, roughly two months before voters decide whether he will get another four years in office.

Asked why he did not use the word "victory" in his White House speech last week, Mr. Obama said the United States would be "successful" in a narrowly-drawn mission helping Afghanistan provide its own security and making sure al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S.

"I didn't use 'victory' in my West Point speech, either," Mr. Obama said, referring to the 2009 speech announcing the surge of troops.}

Mr. Obama said the "surge" has allowed for the training of an additional 100,000 Afghan forces, both army and police.

"And that is going to give the Afghans more capacity to defend themselves, because it is in our national interest to make sure that you did not have a collapse of Afghanistan in which extremist elements could flood the zone once again and over time al Qaeda might be in a position to rebuild itself," Mr. Obama said.

Asked if he was concerned a Tuesday attack on a landmark hotel in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul that killed people is evidence that Afghan forces are not ready to take over from U.S. forces, Mr. Obama said it is too early to make that call.

"Keep in mind, the drawdown hasn't begun. So we understood that Afghanistan's a dangerous place, that the Taliban is still active and that there are still going to be events like this on occasion," the president said.

At least 11 civilians were killed and more than a dozen were wounded when Taliban forces reportedly sieged the Intercontinental hotel in one of the most sophisticated attacks in years.

In his address to the nation last week, Obama said about 10,000 troops would begin coming home this year and the remaining "surge" forces would come home next year, leaving roughly 70,000 troops still in place.

That timetable is more aggressive than some military advisers had urged. Mr. Obama made the final decision Tuesday after weighing options presented to him by General David Petraeus, his top commander in Afghanistan.

The September 2012 withdrawal date would mean that large numbers of troops would be coming out of Afghanistan during the summer of 2012 fighting season, which stretches from spring to fall.

The fighting season has traditionally been the time when U.S. forces try to put maximum pressure on the Taliban and other insurgents. Executing a withdrawal in the middle of that fighting season will complicate that mission.

A recent CBS News poll found that 64 percent of Americans want the number of troops of Afghanistan reduced, the highest number since CBS News first asked the question in 2009.

In Afghanistan, who will pick up where the U.S. leaves off? Special Report: Afghanistan