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In midst of Afghan review, Pentagon officials suddenly circumspect

By Charley Keyes, CNN Senior Producer
  • Defense officials are usually eager to address progress in Afghanistan
  • A White House review is stifling such talk

Washington (CNN) -- It was a double-take, what-did-he-say moment at the Pentagon Wednesday morning when the official spokesman ducked a question about whether the U.S. military is making progress in Afghanistan.

Usually that would have been a slam-dunk for the military. Defense Department officials miss no opportunity to point out successes and highlight achievements in the war in Afghanistan -- usually. But the latest, looming, soon-to-be released White House review of Afghanistan strategy is stifling such talk for now.

"I'm not one to judge," said Col. Dave Lapan about progress in Afghanistan, at the regular off-camera meeting in his Pentagon office. "There are lots of people who have been intimately involved in this process. I'm not one of them so I'm not going to give my idea."

Just the day before, and just across the hall from his office, Lapan had moderated a news conference, via videolink from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, with Major General Richard Mills who spelled out in colorful detail about how his Marines and coalition forces were seeing "steady and unwavering progress."

But some Defense officials seem to be holding back as well while the review continues.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is travelling in Afghanistan this week and served up a somber summary when he talked to troops at Forward Operating Base Joyce Tuesday. "This is tough terrain and this is a tough fight," Gates said. "But as General Petraeus has said, we are breaking the momentum of the enemy, and we will reverse that momentum in partnering with the Afghans and will make this a better place for them, so they can take over, and we can all go home. It will be awhile and we'll suffer tougher losses as we go."

The Commanding General of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, himself refused to be boxed-in during an ABC interview for Good Morning America about whether he is confident the Afghanistan Army will be able to take over from U.S. forces in 2014. "I don't know that you say confident," Petraeus said. "We have to do everything we can to increase the chances of that prospect, but again I don't think there are any sure things in this kind of endeavor, and I wouldn't be honest with you and with the viewers if I didn't convey that."

That kind of honesty was underlined by the person identified in conversations with journalists travelling with Gates only as a "Senior Defense Official" when talking about the White House review. "Our sense is that, it will note that there has been progress, that the additional forces have enabled the expansion of the security bubbles in Helmand and in Kandahar and around Kabul and then in some smaller areas in the east," the official said. "But that clearly there is a good deal more work that needs to be done. Transition is likely to go forward in 2011, as was committed at the Lisbon summit, at a pace based on conditions on the ground."

And Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell set the wait-and-see tone.

"We are still in the midst of this review, there is no final product so it's premature to draw any definitive conclusions," Morrell said to reporters travelling with the Defense Secretary.