WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that surging troops into Afghanistan had made “significant progress” in curbing the Taliban and stifling al Qaeda, but warned that gains won in a bloody year were “fragile” and reversible.
Speaking as the White House unveiled a long-awaited review of its Afghan troop surge launched a year ago, Obama said al Qaeda “is hunkered down” finding it harder to recruit, train and plot attacks.
He also said al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan was weaker than at any time since 2001. But the study was short on details and supporting evidence, and did not include pointed criticisms of the Pakistan and Afghan governments which have featured US government documents leaked in recent months.
The review, the product of a two-month period of assessment of all aspects of US war strategy, comes after a year of record bloodshed for foreign troops and rising Afghan civilian deaths.
Obama also called on Pakistan to step up the fight to root out terrorist safe havens within its borders , saying progress “has not come fast enough.”
The US president stressed he was committed to beginning to withdraw US troops from the nine-year conflict from July, adding though that the drawdown will “conclude in 2014.
“Our review confirms, however, for these gains to be sustained over time, there is an urgent need for political and economic progress in Afghanistan.”
“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 fragile and reversible.”
Officials have styled the report, which Obama unveiled alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and
Defence Secretary Robert Gates, as a snapshot of the war rather than heralding a major strategy change.
It appears to give Obama breathing room to begin his promised conditions-based withdrawal of US troops in July 2011, while reconciling concerns by the military that it is too early for substantial troop reductions.
Progress will permit a “responsible reduction” to begin of US forces from Afghanistan, currently at nearly 100,000, next July, though a full handover to Afghan security is not envisaged until at least 2014, the review said.
The report trod carefully on uneasy US anti-terror ally Pakistan, following pointed criticisms of Islamabad’s nuclear safety and other areas of policy revealed in US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks and other reports.
Progress in Washington-Islamabad alliance had been “substantial” but “uneven” in the last year, and some adjustments are necessary, the report said.
“For instance, the denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan,” the report said.
The overview says that progress in Afghanistan was most evident in gains Afghan and coalition forces made in clearing Taliban heartlands in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
Critics of US strategy are likely to argue that the review leaves key questions unanswered, including whether Afghan military and governing structures will ever be sufficiently robust to secure US gains.
Administration officials have also played down intelligence reports cited by newspapers, which apparently paint a less optimistic picture of the war than that seen in the administration report.
Progress in Afghanistan has come at a high cost: more foreign troops — nearly 700 — died in 2010 than in any year of the nine-year conflict, and Washington has waged public spats with Kabul and Islamabad.
The war also faces waning public support: 60 per cent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News/Washington Post poll out Thursday believe that the war is not worth fighting, up seven points since July.
On a cost-benefit basis, only 34 per cent of those polled believe the Afghan war has been worth fighting, down nine points and setting a new low.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2010.