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Obama insists US is on track to begin Afghanistan pullout

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

The White House claimed yesterday that the American-led allies were making enough progress against al-Qaida and the Taliban for the planned “responsible” withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan to begin in the middle of next year.

“We are on track to achieve our goals,” US President Obama said in Washington.

But a long-anticipated review issued almost exactly 12 months after Mr Obama announced the temporary dispatch of 30,000 extra US troops warns that the gains are fragile and reversible.

It highlights two crucial problems: chronic corruption and poor government in the country, and the failure of the US and its nominal ally Pakistan to root out Taliban sanctuaries in that country.

“In short, al-Qaida is hunkered down,” the President said.

“It will take time to ultimately defeat al-Qaida and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking our country. But make no mistake. We are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organisation.”

The report said the US and its allies have blunted the Taliban's momentum and forced it onto the defensive in many key areas, and that al-Qaida's top leadership, believed to be in hiding in Pakistan, is now weaker and under greater pressure than at any point since it fled Afghanistan in late 2001.

Nine years later, however, the war — now the longest in US history — continues. And even if the claimed gains can be consolidated, US troops will be in Afghanistan at least until 2014, the target date for withdrawal.

In the meantime, however, 2010 has already proved the bloodiest year yet for US and Nato forces, while civilian deaths are running at record levels.

Yesterday alone, a roadside bomb killed 14 civilians in western Afghanistan, while four Afghan soldiers were killed in a night-time US air strike.

The review noted that even if the 2014 date was met, the US would still have to “support Afghanistan's development and security as a strategic partner” in the future — implying a continuing military involvement in the country even after an official end to combat operations.

Some 140,000 Nato troops are deployed in Afghanistan, 100,000 of them American. But the crux remains Washington's tricky relationship with Pakistan, described as “central” to success in the region. Those ties are now said, with some some understatement, to be “uneven.”

Although the partnership is “heading in the right direction,” it has been hampered by the heavy Pakistani casualties. The review is unlikely to end debate within government over the future of a war costing £72bn a year, nor placate a public increasingly opposed to it.

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