WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's expansion of the war in Afghanistan has eroded the power of the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked America in 2001 and the resurgent Taliban militants who gave them cover, according to his own government's review. The findings ensure that Obama will stay the course, with U.S. forces to remain at war through 2014.
U.S. troops will begin to leave Afghanistan in July, according to the report, the same timeline that Obama promised one year ago and has consistently upheld in recent weeks. But the scope and pace of that withdrawal remain unclear, and both are expected to be modest, given the enormity of the security and governance challenges in Afghanistan.
All the findings will be tested in the months and years to come. They form the basis not just of Obama's war strategy but also his credibility with the American people on how this long, costly war is going — and when it will end.
The United States and its NATO allies hope to turn control of the Afghanistan conflict to that nation's own forces by the end of 2014, a timeline endorsed in the new review. Even then, Obama envisions an enduring U.S. role in Afghanistan.
The White House on Wednesday evening released a five-page summary of the newly finished, classified evaluation of the war strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that Obama unveiled to much fanfare in December 2009.
Obama will speak about the review findings at the White House on Thursday morning.
The most promising conclusions are that the senior leadership of al-Qaida in Pakistan is at it weakest since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and that the Taliban, a constant source of violence and instability in Afghanistan, has seen much of its power halted and reversed over the last 12 months.
Obama, inheriting a war he considered adrift but vital to American security, ordered a heightened U.S. presence and a renewed commitment to supporting Afghanistan's development. There are now roughly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The report suggests that the gains against the Taliban "remain fragile and reversible."
Yet more emphasis is given to descriptions of progress.
"The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced Taliban influence," the summary says.
That is a reference mainly to the 30,000 additional forces that Obama ordered a year ago.
The review says progress is most clear in the way Afghan and coalition forces are "clearing the Taliban heartland" in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and in the boosted size and capability of Afghanistan's security forces.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told U.S. troops in Kandahar on Thursday that he considers the fight in Afghanistan's South to be a harbinger of how the wider war will go.
"We've got the right people in you," Mullen said. "We've got the right strategy."
Afghan army and police are scheduled to grow to more than 300,000 troops over the next two years. They face an estimated 25,000-30,000 Taliban guerrillas and other rebels.
There were no direct references to the corruption that plagues Afghanistan's government or the fractured relationship that Obama's administration shares with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Obama called Karzai on Thursday to discuss the review. A statement released by Karzai's office said both presidents agreed that security gains had been made in some areas and that long-term success required focusing on militants' sanctuaries, which are in neighboring Pakistan. Karzai also updated Obama on efforts to reconcile with insurgents who lay down their arms, embrace the Afghan constitution and sever ties with terrorists.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Thursday that his country has "more realistic expectations" for Afghanistan — no longer expecting good governance but the more achievable goal of "good-enough governance."
On al-Qaida, the White House review speaks of major progress in dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership of the terror network.
"Most important, al-Qaida's senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001," the report finds. It warns that the U.S. is still the principal target for al-Qaida, and that "Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11."
The United States has lasting trouble in ridding Pakistan of its havens for terrorists.
The report raises that sore point by saying Pakistan must provide more help in solving the problem, particularly in the dangerous border zone with Afghanistan.
Obama is expected to visit Pakistan next year. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has improved substantially in the last year — but the progress has been uneven, the report finds. The U.S. government is pledging improvements in 2011.
As plotting of terrorism continues against the United States, the defeat of al-Qaida will be best achieved by forcefully destroying the group's sanctuaries and killings its leaders, the report says. Throughout, however, the report calls for sustained U.S. help in developing Afghanistan and Pakistan for its people, not just waging a military campaign.
Obama's comments from the White House briefing room will not take on the tone of a major presidential address. He is expected to cede the spotlight quickly to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will field questions from reporters.
This year has been the deadliest in the war for U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. officials briefed on both reports. U.S. 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.
Associated Press Writers Kimberly Dozier in Washington, Anne Gearan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.