After review, Obama says war progress is tangible, but reversible
ARLINGTON, Va. — President Barack Obama declared Thursday that his strategy has produced “significant progress” in the war in Afghanistan, but cautioned that those gains remain “fragile and reversible.”
Marking one year after authorizing a 30,000 troop surge into Afghanistan, and following a lengthy review by his war cabinet, Obama said much work still must be done, particularly in cajoling Pakistan’s military to increase its offensives against terrorists operating from their side of the border. But he maintained his belief that troop withdrawals could begin in July.
“I want to be clear, this continues to be a very difficult endeavor,” Obama said at the White House. “But I can report that thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals.”
Obama reiterated the goal is “disrupting, dismantling and defeating" al-Qaida, and is not to defeat “every last threat to the security of Afghanistan.”
The president, flanked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, said the strategy was working and offered no changes or tactical shifts that may result from the review.
“The sense of progress of those closest to the fight is palpable,” said Gates, who toured Afghanistan last week and found progress exceeded his expectations. “This is really the path out for everybody.”
In the past year, violence has skyrocketed across Afghanistan as international coalition and Afghan forces stepped up combat operations, driving Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from key southern strongholds. Meanwhile, civilian programs helped establish public schools and agricultural markets where none existed before the summer.
Clinton said the Obama team inherited a messy situation with no clear strategy or mission.
“And our military and civilian forces lacked the resources they needed to get any progress accomplished,” she said. “Today we have a very different story to tell.”
This fall, war commander Gen. David Petraeus asked his regional commanders to begin identifying districts that U.S. forces could transition to Afghan control in timed stages, and presented that plan to NATO. Last month, NATO recommitted to providing trainers, key to improving Afghan National Security Forces.
But the troop surge, and increased covert efforts to target enemy leadership, has pushed many fighters into Pakistan, where U.S. troops are not permitted to chase them with full military force. Though Pakistan has increased its attacks and positioned 140,000 troops in border regions, Gates noted, U.S. officials in Washington and ground commanders recently said they need to see more from Islamabad.
“We welcome major Pakistani offensives in the tribal regions,” Obama said. “We will continue to help strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to weed out terrorists. Nevertheless, progress has not come fast enough, so we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with.”
This week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen made his 21st trip to Pakistan as chairman, where he broke from his usual cordial public front to press Pakistan openly.
“There is a strategic impatience on the part of myself and others,” he said, according to a New York Times report.
Back at the Pentagon later Thursday, Cartwright said it was a matter of “when, not if” Pakistani forces will push more into border territories, but they currently are tied up holding territory already won from insurgents.
The U.S. has presented no alternatives to waiting. Cartwright said the U.S. prefers to continue increasing “partnered” actions with the Pakistanis, sharing intelligence and coordination, but added unilateral U.S. ground operations in Pakistan remain unlikely.
“That would be an absolute last measure,” he said. “You’d really hate to end up in that position.”
War commanders in Pentagon interviews recently have indicated that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will not let up during the winter, which usually sees a lull in enemy fighting, but already they are eager to see how strongly al-Qaida will return come spring.
“In short, al-Qaida is hunkered down,” Obama said.
Its senior leadership is under more pressure to train and recruit fighters than at any time in the nine-year war, he explained.
“It will take time to ultimately defeat al-Qaida, and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy intent on attacking our country,” Obama said. “But make no mistake, we are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization.”
The administration’s cautious tone has permeated messages from the White House, Pentagon and military commands in the region for months.
Immediate reactions from Congress following Obama’s presentation were generally warm.
“Ultimately, we are on the right track,” said Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “After reading the assessment released today, I am still convinced that implementing this new strategy was the right choice, and I contend that it is still our best chance for success.”
Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chair of the Armed Services Committee, said the assessment was fair but noted that problems remain, in a sober statement: “The safe havens in Pakistan remain a major concern, and Pakistan needs to go further in eliminating these sanctuaries from which insurgents attack U.S., Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”