By Sam Youngman - 12/16/10 06:27 PM EST
U.S. and allied forces are making progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama and his national security team insisted Thursday.
Obama said the U.S. and allied forces are “on track to meet our goals,” but warned that “there are more difficult days ahead” as he addressed reporters following the conclusion of the annual review of the war strategy.
Overall, the president and his review concluded that after one year of the new strategy Obama ordered last December, U.S. and allied forces are on schedule to begin the transer of security responsibility to Afghan forces in July 2011.
In the White House briefing room, the president addressed the three components of the diagnostic review — al Qaeda, Pakistan and Afghanistan — one by one, laying out the encouraging news and the challenges as the war enters its ninth year.
Obama hailed the gains forces have made in crippling al Qaeda’s terrorist capabilities, saying the network is “hunkered down.” But the review and officials have warned that the group is still capable of planning attacks against the U.S. homeland.
“Make no mistake, we are going to remain relentless” in disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda, Obama said.
Obama and his team also noted considerable improvement in the relationship the U.S. enjoys with Pakistan, but the president said that “progress has not come fast enough.”
The border and tribal regions of western Pakistan that provide safe havens for al Qaeda and extremists “must be dealt with,” Obama said.
And in Afghanistan, the president said there is “no question” that U.S. and allied forces have had success in arresting and in some cases reversing the momentum of the Taliban.
But the president lamented that there is still “an urgent need for political and economic progress” in Afghanistan.
“I want to be clear: This continues to be a very difficult endeavor,” Obama said of the war.
Gates, who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan, said that the sense of progress is “palpable” among U.S. troops, and he added that the recruiting and training of Afghan security forces “has exceeded my expectation.”
But, in perhaps the most chilling revelation of the review, Gates said that “there's no doubt that the Taliban has a very targeted assassination program” that is keeping many Afghan civilians from participating in government and government jobs.
Gates said that as the military progress continues, those Taliban capabilities will be diminished.