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Obama: U.S. on track to meet goals in Afghanistan

From NBC's Athena Jones
While acknowledging there would be "more difficult days ahead," President Obama said the United States would "never waver" from the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, as he updated the American people on the progress of a war in Afghanistan that has entered its 10th year and that has become increasingly unpopular here at home and in Europe.

He said the United States, with the help of coalition forces, had made "significant progress," noting that Al Qaeda's senior leadership in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan was weaker and under more pressure than at any point in the last nine years and that in Afghanistan, allied forces had been successful in slowing the Taliban's momentum.

"I want to be clear: This continues to be a very difficult endeavor, 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," the president said during a brief speech in the White House briefing room. "From the start, I've been very clear about our core goal. It's not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because ultimately it is Afghans who must secure their country and it's not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation."

But the president also said that in many places "the gains we've made are still fragile and reversible," and he stressed the need to help strengthen Afghan security forces' capacity and for more political and economic progress in the country.

Obama, who made a surprise trip to Afghanistan at the beginning of December, spoke with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with Pakistani President Asi Ali Zardari about the review before his speech. He said the United States would reach a new strategic partnership with Afghanistan next year that would make clear the country's commitment to the long-term security and development of the country and that he plans to visit Pakistan next year.

When the president announced plans to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in his speech last December at West Point Military Academy in New York, he also directed his National Security Staff to lead an annual assessment of strategy.

The resulting 2010 review, which included no big surprises and no shift in strategy, came less than a month after NATO allies agreed at a meeting in Lisbon to an eventual exit strategy from the country that would have Afghan forces taking the lead for their own security across the country by 2014. The assessment announced today left unchanged the goal of beginning a conditions-based drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan in July 2011.

The war could become a political issue within Obama's Democratic base as the 2012 presidential election approaches. According to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, while 53% of overall respondents and 64% of Republicans approve of the plan to leave many combat troops in Afghanistan until 2014, only 46% of Democrats and 49% of Independents approve, with more than 50% of both groups voicing disapproval.

The pollsters said these numbers tracked with surveys during the Iraq war, in which GOP support drove the stronger overall approval number, but that overall number quickly sank.

The review stresses the need for long-term commitment to the region and to continue to working with Pakistan, saying progress in the US-Pakistan relationship over the past year "has been substantial, but also uneven." Pakistan's ability and willingness to fight insurgents on its own territory -- many of whom use the country as a safe haven from which to launch attacks on Afghanistan -- has long been an issue.

"We've welcomed major Pakistani offensives in the tribal regions," Obama said. "We will continue to help strengthen Pakistanis' capacity to root 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."

Sugar coating?
The president was joined on stage by Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright. After his 10-minute speech, the president and vice president departed, leaving Clinton, Gates, Cartwright and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to field questions from the press.

Asked whether the administration was sugar-coating the situation in the region given the many governance issues, concerns about civilian capacity and terrorist safe havens, Clinton pushed back, arguing a great deal of progress had been made compared with two years ago.

"If you start from the context that we inherited two years ago, you can understand why we think that on the one hand, we're making progress and on the other hand, we have a long way to go," Clinton said. "I don't see that those two thoughts are in any way canceling each other out or leading to some kind of rosy outlook. I think we're very clear eyed and realistic."

During the president campaign, Obama argued that Afghanistan was the forgotten war, one that had been starved of troops and resources in favor of the fight in Iraq. Today he said his administration's success in withdrawing combat troops from Iraq had put the United States in a "better position to give our forces in Afghanistan the support and equipment they need to achieve their missions".

Also at issue in any discussion of the massive and lengthy war effort is the United States' working relationship with Karzai, whose government has faced repeated charges of corruption. Gates said it was important to keep in mind the United States' goals in the region.

"Our goal isn't to build a 21st century Afghanistan; our goal is not a country that is free of corruption; that would be something that's unique in the entire region," Gates said.

The defense secretary explained that the main question being asked was what was needed to disrupt the Taliban and get to a point where it would be possible to turn over responsibility for security to the Afghans. He said the lengthy review process had kept the administration "focused on not getting too ambitious and not setting goals that we can't achieve and trying to have a minimalist approach" that is centered on Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Afghanistan's military and civilian capabilities.