UPDATE 7-Despite bloodshed, Obama touts Afghan war progress

* US still poised to start withdrawing troops in July 2011

* Review finds Taliban momentum arrested in many areas

* Skeptics question progress on governance, corruption

* Role of Pakistan a key issue

* Clinton calls review “clear-eyed and realistic”
(Updates with analysts, Afghan lawmaker)

By Missy Ryan and Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON, Dec 16 (BestGrowthStock) – President Barack Obama told
war-weary Americans on Thursday that enough progress was being
made in Afghanistan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July,
even as he faces growing doubts about his war strategy.

Obama, under pressure to show results after criticizing his
predecessor George W. Bush for neglecting the war, insisted
that U.S.-led forces were scoring gains against the Taliban and
al Qaeda but warned they were fragile and reversible.

Obama said the United States was on course to meet his
pledge to begin withdrawing troops by mid-2011 and transition
to full Afghan security control by 2014.

“I want to be clear, this continues to be a very difficult
endeavor,” Obama said at the White House as he unveiled a
review of his year-old strategy. But, he added, “We’re on track
to achieve our goals.”

His defense secretary, Robert Gates, said it was too early
to say how quickly troops would be withdrawn, but Washington
hoped to accelerate the drawdown as more progress was made.
There are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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Full coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan [ID:nAFPAK]

Highlights of the review [ID:nN16115504]

Analysis of political implications [ID:nN14278974]

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A five-page unclassified summary of the White House review
said foreign forces had made “notable operational gains,” and
reported uneven progress in Pakistan, whose border areas are
widely seen as the main obstacle to Obama’s strategy succeeding
because of the free flow of militants into Afghanistan.

There were no surprises in the summary, whose conclusions
had been well-telegraphed by U.S. officials in the lead-up to
Thursday, and it included no supporting data for its cautiously
positive findings.

“The bottom line — the administration asks that we trust
them to maintain our current course, but without any clear
detail,” said Caroline Wadhams, an expert at the Center for
American Progress, a liberal think-tank with close ties to the
Obama administration.

Anthony Cordesman, a noted military expert at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies, was equally
unimpressed by the vagueness of the summary, calling it
“slightly longer than the average fortune cookie.”

The review comes at the end of the bloodiest year since
U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Taliban as the country’s
rulers in 2001, with almost 700 foreign troops killed so far.
At least 477 of them were Americans. Yet Afghan civilians bear
the brunt of the conflict as insurgents expand from strongholds
into once-peaceful areas in the north and west.

On Thursday, a roadside bomb killed 14 civilians in western
Afghanistan and four Afghan soldiers died in a U.S. air strike
overnight. [ID:nSGE6BF086]

KARZAI NOT MENTIONED

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama’s key ally in the war,
did not rate a mention in the publicly released document. The
two men have had sometimes-tense relations and critics accuse
Karzai of failing to clamp down on corruption and improve
governance.

The upbeat public assessment of the war by U.S. military
officials and the White House is not shared by America’s
intelligence agencies and aid agencies working in Afghanistan.

U.S. spy agencies have given the White House a more
pessimistic assessment of the counter-insurgency strategy. Two
officials told Reuters the agencies believe long-term progress
in Afghanistan will remain difficult until Pakistan takes
firmer action against militants in its border tribal areas.

“Buried in the summary is the acknowledgment of two
significant challenges for the stabilization effort: the
continuing Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and the poor quality
of governance in Afghanistan,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an
analyst at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington.

Senator John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed
Services Committee, told Reuters he was disappointed at Obama’s
insistence of beginning the withdrawal in July, because setting
a deadline “encourages the enemy and discourages our friends.”

“We are making some progress,” he said, but noted two areas
of concern — an “ineffective” Afghan government plagued by
corruption and Pakistan’s struggle to crack down on militants.

Aid groups including the International Committee of the Red
Cross expect violence in Afghanistan to worsen next year,
making it harder to reach people in need. [ID:nSGE6BE0C4]

Afghan lawmaker Fawzia Kufia was pessimistic that the
strategy review would help to arrest worsening conditions.

“The problem is not with the tactics, the problem is with
the strategy, with the overall vision in this country and in
the region,” she said.

“ROSY” VIEW?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed
suggestions that the Obama administration was presenting an
overly rosy view of the war.

“I think we’re clear-eyed and realistic,” she said.

Obama’s renewed commitment to begin withdrawing troops in
July 2011 may help to appease the left wing of his Democratic
Party and others weary of nine years of war.

His decision to stay the course in Afghanistan poses little
political risk for him now. There is scant public debate on the
war, with Americans distracted by anemic economic growth.

That could change in the coming months, however, if
violence continues to worsen, U.S. casualties mount and the
U.S. economy stays in the doldrums, drawing closer scrutiny of
the costs of the $113 billion-a-year war.
(Writing by Missy Ryan and Ross Colvin; additional reporting
by Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick, Caren Bohan, David Morgan
and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Mohammed Abbas in London,
Paul Tait and Jonathon Burch in Kabul and Chris Allbritton and
Augustine Anthony in Islamabad; Editing by Will Dunham and
David Storey)

UPDATE 7-Despite bloodshed, Obama touts Afghan war progress