Obama: Taliban, al-Qaida diminished in Afghanistan

US will start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July, but the war will remain a "very difficult endeavor," US president says.

311_Obama says talk to the hand (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
311_Obama says talk to the hand
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
WASHINGTON — Declaring significant progress in disrupting al-Qaida and combating the Taliban, US President Barack Obama said Thursday the United States will start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan in July as promised. He still warned of sobering days, saying the war will remain a "very difficult endeavor."
Assessing the war one year after he ordered a major buildup of troops, Obama said the goal is not to defeat every threat to Afghanistan's security or to build up the nation. Rather, he said, the United States continues to shed blood in the war — one now in its 10th year — to dismantle the al-Qaida network and push back the Taliban.
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"We are on track to achieve our goals," Obama said from the White House.
Yet he added that progress has not come fast enough in Pakistan, where terrorists continue to find safe haven. And the president warned that the gains over the last year — which have come at the cost of more U.S. troop deaths that at any time during the war — are fragile and reversible.
Put together, Obama's words and the report's findings underscore that his war plan is here to stay. The goal is for the US-led coalition of nations to turn over control of Afghan security by the end of 2014, which means that US troops will remain at war there for at least the next four years.
The pace and scope of the US troop withdrawal is unclear. "We don't know at this point," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters. He said he hoped the pace would accelerate based on local conditions.
There are now roughly 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, as well as 40,000 from NATO allies.
A defining issue in the months ahead will be the degree to which the United States can get Pakistan's cooperation in rooting out the terrorists within its borders. Obama, who has significantly escalated the scope of the war and always centered that effort on defeating al-Qaida, claimed his most progress to date.
"In short, al-Qaida is hunkered down," the president said. "It will take time to ultimately defeat al-Qaida and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking our country. But make no mistake. We are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization."
This year has been the deadliest in the war for US forces. At least 480 American troops have been killed in 2010, and more than 2,100 have died since the conflict began in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
The review took place over the last two months, led by Obama's national security staff, with input from across government agencies and from commanders in the war zones.
Separately, new US national intelligence estimates of Afghanistan and Pakistan paint bleak pictures of security conditions inside Afghanistan and of Pakistan's willingness to rout militants on its side of the border, according to several US officials briefed on both reports. US military commanders have challenged the conclusions, saying they are based on outdated information that does not take into account progress made over this past fall.