WASHINGTON (AP) — Declaring significant progress in disrupting al-Qaida and combatting the Taliban, President Barack Obama said Thursday the United States will start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July as promised. He still warned of sobering days, saying the war will remain a "very difficult endeavor."
Assessing the war one year after he ordered a major increase in troops, Obama said the goal is not to defeat every threat to Afghanistan's security or to build up the nation. Rather, he said, the United States continues to shed blood in the war — one now in its 10th year — to dismantle the al-Qaida network and push back the Taliban.
"We are on track to achieve our goals," Obama said from the White House.
Yet he added that progress has not come fast enough in Pakistan, where terrorists continue to find safe haven. And the president warned that the gains over the last year — which have come at the cost of more U.S. troop deaths that at any time during the war — are fragile and reversible.
Put together, Obama's words and the report's findings underscore that his war plan is here to stay. The goal is for the U.S.-led coalition of nations to turn over control of Afghan security by the end of 2014, which means that U.S. troops will remain at war there for at least the next four years.
The pace and scope of the U.S. troop withdrawal is unclear. "We don't know at this point," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters. He said he hoped the pace would accelerate based on local conditions.
There are now roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as 40,000 from NATO allies.
A defining issue in the months ahead will be the degree to which the United States can get Pakistan's cooperation in rooting out the terrorists within its borders. Obama, who has significantly escalated the scope of the war and always centered that effort on defeating al-Qaida, claimed his most progress to date.
"In short, al-Qaida is hunkered down," the president said. "It will take time to ultimately defeat al-Qaida 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."
The Afghanistan war began in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. It has become one of the longest wars in the country's history, and public opinion at home has turned against it.
"I understand it," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said of the nation's displeasure.
But she said that "leaders — and certainly this president — will not make decisions that are matters of life and death, and the future security of our nation, based on polling."
Obama broadly described a war effort that, in his view and those of his national security team, is working but has serious challenges ahead.
He spoke of progress in breaking the Taliban's momentum, boosting civilian efforts, expanding cooperation with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet questions loom not just about terrorist bases in Pakistan but also the ability of Afghanistan's government to take control of the country, both in terms of security and basic services for people.
Gates rejected skepticism that the review may be sugarcoated, insisting that prospects of success and the progress reports have been realistic. Clinton added: "I don't think you will find any rosy-scenario people in the leadership of this administration, starting with the president. This has been a very hard-nosed review."
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.
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