President Barack Obama offered Americans an optimistic assessment of the Afghanistan war on Thursday, even as U.S. spy agencies and aid groups express doubts about the progress amid worsening violence.
Obama, under pressure to show results after criticizing his predecessor George W. Bush for neglecting the war, said the United States was on track to start pulling out troops next July as planned. He offered no details on the pace of those withdrawals.
A five-page unclassified summary of the White House review said U.S. and NATO forces had made "notable operational gains," halting the Taliban's momentum in many areas and disrupting al Qaeda. But it stressed the gains were fragile and reversible and that major challenges remained.
It reported substantial but uneven progress in the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, whose lawless tribal areas are widely seen as the main obstacle to Obama's strategy succeeding because of the relatively free flow of militants across the border into Afghanistan.
"I want to be clear, this continues to be a very difficult endeavor," Obama said at the White House. But, he added, "We're on track to achieve our goals."
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.
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.
Obama announced a year ago when he unveiled a temporary troop surge that he planned to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from the 9-year-old war in July 2011. On Thursday, he indicated that U.S. troops would begin withdrawing at that time and handing over security to Afghan forces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama's key ally in the war, did not rate a mention in the 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 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 on the border.
Aid groups including the International Committee of the Red Cross, expect violence to worsen next year, making it harder for aid groups to reach people in need.
U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the September 11 attacks on the United States to topple the Taliban rulers who had harbored al Qaeda leaders responsible for the attacks.
The foreign forces in Afghanistan hope to hand security control to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, as agreed with Karzai at a NATO summit in Lisbon in November.