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Obama trumpets U.S. gains in Afghanistan

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Obama: Defeating al Qaeda still main goal
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama says U.S. gains in Afghanistan are significant but fragile
  • Report: U.S. still on course to bring some troops home in July 2011
  • Pakistan objects to the report's characterization of its efforts against extremists
  • The report is part of Obama's planned review of the war in the region

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama asserted Thursday that the United States is making significant progress in the nine-year war in Afghanistan, but warned that the conflict "continues to be a very difficult endeavor."

We are "on track to achieve our goals" of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and eroding "its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future," he said. The gains, however, are fragile.

The president noted, among other things, that there has been a "successful increase" in the recruitment and training of Afghan forces due partly to the July 2011 deadline set by the administration to start withdrawing the U.S. military.

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A "sense of urgency" is galvanizing other allies as well, he claimed.

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Obama was joined for the announcement by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright.

To further U.S. goals in the region, Obama announced he will travel to Pakistan next year. While Islamabad increasingly recognizes the danger of confronting militants along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, "progress has not come fast enough," he said.

"Terrorist safe havens within (Pakistan's) borders must be dealt with," he said.

Obama's remarks came as the White House released a long-awaited report on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ground has been gained in halting the momentum of militants thanks in large part to the administration's acceleration of resources to the war effort, the report concluded.

Obama, who noted that he personally shared the conclusions of the report with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President President Asif Ali Zardari, has significantly increased the number of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan since taking office.

"Specific components of our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are working well and there are notable operational gains," according to the Overview of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review.

"Al Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001.

"In Pakistan, we are laying the foundation for a strategic partnership based on mutual respect and trust, through increased dialogue, improved cooperation, and enhanced exchange and assistance programs.

"And in Afghanistan, the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain ... reversible," the report said.

Shortly after beginning his term, Obama instituted the annual review process of the war in Afghanistan. The planned assessment took on even more importance this week with the death of veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, America's special envoy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Frank Ruggiero, a career civil servant, has been named acting special representative.

"Although the global affiliates and allies of al Qaeda also threaten the U.S. homeland and interests, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11," the report said.

"Al Qaeda's senior leadership has been depleted, 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," it noted.

The report termed progress with Pakistan over the last year as "substantial, but also uneven" -- an assessment sharply disputed by Islamabad.

"Pakistan has contributed to the war on terrorism more than its resources," Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told CNN. "Maybe the world is not seeing the hidden price we are paying for the war on terrorism. To underestimate our sacrifices would be a big mistake: Our economy has been badly disturbed and innocent people are being affected."

There are numerous improvements that need to be made as the U.S.-Pakistan working relationship evolves, the report said. Dialogue with Pakistan and Afghanistan must be strengthened and the United States must back efforts by Pakistan to build its economy and improve its governing.

Consolidating gains in Afghanistan "will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks. Durability also requires continued work with Afghanistan to transfer cleared areas to their security forces," the report said.

The report said the "accelerated deployment of U.S. and international military and civilian resources to the region" that began last year "has enabled progress and the sense of purpose within the United States government, among our coalition partners, and in the region."

In fact, the "surge" in these resources and expanded special operations efforts have reduced Taliban influence.

"Progress is most evident in the gains Afghan and coalition forces are making in clearing the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and in the significantly increased size and improved capability of the Afghan National Security Forces."

The increase in resources has led to a state of affairs that would usher in the "responsible reduction of U.S. forces in July 2011." At the same time, the report stresses the "importance of a sustained long-term commitment to the region."

The report stressed that diplomacy should go hand in hand with military and civilian work.

"In 2011, we will intensify our regional diplomacy to enable a political process to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan, to include Afghan-led reconciliation, taking advantage of the momentum created by the recent security gains and the international consensus gained in Lisbon," a reference to the recent NATO meeting in the Portuguese city.

"As we shift to transition, a major challenge will be demonstrating that the Afghan government has the capacity to consolidate gains in geographic areas that have been cleared by ISAF and Afghan Security Forces."

A number of congressional Democrats, however, remain skeptical of Obama's enhanced efforts in the region.

The president's review "seems as finely parsed as last year's effort," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence.

"But, this time, our ground game is a lot less convincing. ... I do not believe the (current) approach will ultimately succeed, and I believe its cost in lives and revenue is unsustainable."

CNN's Joe Sterling, Alan Silverleib, Tom Cohen, Chris Lawrence and Nasir Habib contributed to this report

 
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