WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told war-weary Americans on Thursday that enough progress was being made in Afghanistan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July, even as he faces growing doubts about his war strategy.
Obama, under pressure to show results after criticizing his predecessor George W. Bush for neglecting the war, insisted that U.S.-led forces were scoring gains against the Taliban and al Qaeda but warned they were fragile and reversible.
Obama said the United States was on course to meet his pledge to begin withdrawing troops by mid-2011 and transition to full Afghan security control by 2014.
“I want to be clear, this continues to be a very difficult endeavor,” Obama said at the White House as he unveiled a review of his year-old strategy. But, he added, “We’re on track to achieve our goals.”
His defense secretary, Robert Gates, said it was too early to say how quickly troops would be withdrawn, but Washington hoped to accelerate the drawdown as more progress was made. There are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
A five-page unclassified summary of the White House review said foreign forces had made “notable operational gains,” and reported uneven progress in Pakistan, whose border areas are widely seen as the main obstacle to Obama’s strategy succeeding because of the free flow of militants into Afghanistan.
There were no surprises in the summary, whose conclusions had been well-telegraphed by U.S. officials in the lead-up to Thursday, and it included no supporting data for its cautiously positive findings.
“The bottom line -- the administration asks that we trust them to maintain our current course, but without any clear detail,” said Caroline Wadhams, an expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank with close ties to the Obama administration.
Anthony Cordesman, a noted military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was equally unimpressed by the vagueness of the summary, calling it “slightly longer than the average fortune cookie.”
The review comes at the end of the bloodiest year since U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Taliban as the country’s rulers in 2001, with almost 700 foreign troops killed so far. At least 477 of them were Americans. Yet Afghan civilians bear the brunt of the conflict as insurgents expand from strongholds into once-peaceful areas in the north and west.
On Thursday, a roadside bomb killed 14 civilians in western Afghanistan and four Afghan soldiers died in a U.S. air strike overnight.
KARZAI NOT MENTIONED
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama’s key ally in the war, did not rate a mention in the publicly released document. The two men have had sometimes-tense relations and critics accuse Karzai of failing to clamp down on corruption and improve governance.
The upbeat public assessment of the war by U.S. military officials and the White House is not shared by America’s intelligence agencies and aid agencies working in Afghanistan.
U.S. spy agencies have given the White House a more pessimistic assessment of the counter-insurgency strategy. Two officials told Reuters the agencies believe long-term progress in Afghanistan will remain difficult until Pakistan takes firmer action against militants in its border tribal areas.
“Buried in the summary is the acknowledgment of two significant challenges for the stabilization effort: the continuing Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and the poor quality of governance in Afghanistan,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an analyst at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington.
Senator John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Reuters he was disappointed at Obama’s insistence of beginning the withdrawal in July, because setting a deadline “encourages the enemy and discourages our friends.”
“We are making some progress,” he said, but noted two areas of concern -- an “ineffective” Afghan government plagued by corruption and Pakistan’s struggle to crack down on militants.
Aid groups including the International Committee of the Red Cross expect violence in Afghanistan to worsen next year, making it harder to reach people in need.
Afghan lawmaker Fawzia Kufia was pessimistic that the strategy review would help to arrest worsening conditions.
“The problem is not with the tactics, the problem is with the strategy, with the overall vision in this country and in the region,” she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed suggestions that the Obama administration was presenting an overly rosy view of the war.
“I think we’re clear-eyed and realistic,” she said.
Obama’s renewed commitment to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 may help to appease the left wing of his Democratic Party and others weary of nine years of war.
His decision to stay the course in Afghanistan poses little political risk for him now. There is scant public debate on the war, with Americans distracted by anemic economic growth.
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