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Obama sees progress, long road ahead

| December 17, 2010 8:00 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) - Though mostly upbeat, the Obama administration's assessment of war progress in Afghanistan suggests tough combat will continue for years and if the president begins to bring U.S. troops home next summer, as promised, the numbers will be small.

The internal review of President Barack Obama's year-old war strategy unveiled Thursday says that Taliban momentum has been halted in many parts of Afghanistan and that al-Qaida leaders who are thought to be plotting further terrorist attacks on the U.S. from Pakistan sanctuaries have suffered grievous losses.

But the review makes clear that further progress won't come easily. And it indicates that ultimate success depends heavily on factors beyond Obama's control, such as Pakistan's effectiveness in eliminating al-Qaida and Taliban havens on its side of the border.

"We are on track to achieve our goals," Obama declared from the White House in remarks echoing his announcement a year ago that he was escalating the war effort by sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan with the central aim of seizing the initiative from the Taliban.

Though the White House's rhetoric on the war hasn't changed much in the past 12 months, other factors have. Public opinion in the U.S. and other coalition countries has soured on the war, casualties have increased sharply and, in the view of some international groups, the outlook for peace has dimmed.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross' Afghan operation said Wednesday, for example, "In a growing number in areas of the country, we are entering a new, rather murky period" in which violence threatens the ability of humanitarian groups to do their work.

Obama's top national security aides insisted, however, that while tough challenges remain, there is progress toward the goal of handing over control to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who recently returned from Afghanistan, said he saw more progress than he had expected.

However, this year has been the deadliest in the war for U.S. forces. At least 480 American troops have been killed, compared to 317 last year and 155 in 2008.