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Obama: U.S. 'On Track' In Afghanistan

President Obama speaks to reporters about  the review of his administration's strategy in Afghanistan Thursday. With him are Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (from left), Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gen. James Cartwright of the Joint Chiefs.
President Obama speaks to reporters about the review of his administration's strategy in Afghanistan Thursday. With him are Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (from left), Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gen. James Cartwright of the Joint Chiefs.

The U.S. and its allies are making progress toward its goals in Afghanistan, President Obama declared Thursday.

"I want to be clear: This continues to be a very difficult endeavor, but I can report that thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and our civilians on the group we are on track to achieve our goals," Obama said at a press conference following the release of his administration's review of its Afghan war strategy.

The president said the U.S. was seeing "significant progress" in its core goal of "disrupting, dismantling and ultimately defeating al-Qaida" in the region. But both he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that the gains, while significant, were also fragile and reversible.

A summary of the administration's war strategy review devoted significant space and attention to the problems posed by terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. But it offered few specifics about how to address them.

The review summary also made virtually no mention of U.S. relations with the Afghan government, which have often been rocky of late.

Touting Areas of Success

The long-awaited review of the war touts Western efforts at beating back the Taliban in its southern "heartland" strongholds such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

The review also attests to "significant progress" in depleting and disrupting al Qaida in Pakistan. "The group's safe haven is smaller and less secure, and its ability to prepare and conduct terrorist operations has been degraded in important ways," says the White House summary.

On the diplomatic front, the report announces that Clinton will host Afghanistan and Pakistan's foreign ministers in Washington early in the new year.

Looking To 2014

Obama reset the strategy for the war a year ago, committing more troops and civilian personnel in an effort to shore up the Afghan government and defeat the insurgent Taliban.

The current review was ordered up at that time, with an eye toward measuring progress and determining whether Obama's promised troop drawdown -- still set to begin in July 2011 -- can move forward. But the scope and speed of the withdrawal remains unclear.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the pace of withdrawal depends on conditions on the ground, and that the key to success was "the continued expansion of Afghan security forces." He said that strengthening Afghan security forces and weakening the Taliban was "the path out."

The administration recently tweaked its drawdown strategy. At a Lisbon summit last month, Obama helped persuade NATO allies to keep a major military presence on the ground until 2014, at which time, it is hoped, primary responsibility for security will be turned over to the Afghans.

NATO would maintain an "enduring commitment beyond 2014" as the review states.

"The NATO summit helped the administration get away from the July 2011 date," says Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who is now at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"Instead of talking about getting out by July 2011, we're talking about transition to the Afghans by 2014," Volker continues. But, he adds, "At this stage, I don't think the administration knows, or could know, what the right force posture will be in 2014."

Seeking To Allay Concerns

The review counsels patience. Defeating al-Qaida and other terrorist groups remains a strategic concern, the report states. Solidifying and sustaining the gains coalition forces have made on Obama's watch -- he has tripled the number of both troops and civilian personnel since taking office -- will take more time, the report concludes.

Clinton stressed that even as the troop drawdown begins, the U.S. would not repeat history and abandon the Afghan people. "The question I would ask is, 'How do you feel about a continuing American commitment that is aimed at protecting you and your family now and into the future?' " she said.

With allies such as the Dutch and Canadians planning to remove their military forces in the coming months and public opinion about the war continuing to sour in the U.S., some analysts are wondering how long the administration can sustain support for its strategy.

Republicans in Congress remain largely supportive of the war. Their main criticism, in recent months, has centered on the question of withdrawing U.S. troops next July, which they feel is a premature and artificial deadline.

Congressional Democrats, while restive, have not wanted to undercut a president of their own party on his top foreign policy priority.

In addition to offering a positive but guarded message for domestic consumption, the review was intended to demonstrate continuing resolve to U.S. allies and enemies abroad.

"For other actors -- China, Russia, Iran -- there's unease about an indefinite military presence," says Caroline Wadhams, director for South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

"At the same time, they don't want us to leave tomorrow," Wadhams says. "They fear the instability that would be unleashed if we left right now, without security being consolidated."

Does It Address Key Problems?

The administration touts its success in combating the Taliban in Afghanistan's southern provinces. Although it has won some victories, they may be short-lived, the report warns.

The Taliban has yielded in the face of superior force, but it may be able to regroup. But the Taliban can't wait out coalition forces forever. The coalition's campaign to target Taliban leaders has been increasing in intensity, meaning that with every month that goes by, the odds for an individual leader that an American air raid will kill him increase.

But the administration review says little about the other strategic problems that have bedeviled Western war efforts. The White House summary devotes significant space to the problem of safe havens in Pakistan, which have frustrated U.S. commanders.

They can achieve no real progress through tactical victories in Afghanistan if their opponents can retreat unimpeded across the border. But the review offers little in the way of concrete suggestions in addressing this issue, beyond looking for "greater cooperation with Pakistan."

The review is also largely silent both on the sometimes troubled relationship between the U.S. and the Afghan government -- as well as Afghanistan's underlying problems with weak central governance and corruption.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.