President Obama declared on Thursday that U.S. forces are "on track" to achieve America's goals in Afghanistan. But he concluded his annual review of the war by acknowledging that "in many places, the gains we've made are still fragile and reversible."
Obama made his comments in the White House briefing room, where he was flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The report comes one year after Obama revised the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan and sent 30.000 more troops into combat against Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents with the goal of beginning troop drawdowns in July 2011.
The report itself is a sobering look at a war now entering its ninth year. A summary released by the White House cites some progress but stresses that the situation is, as the president repeated, "fragile."
"The compounding losses of al-Qaida's leadership cadre have diminished—but not halted—the group's ability to advance operations against the United States," said the summary of the full report, which is classified.
Obama described the war as "a very difficult endeavor," but he stressed that it is critical to U.S. national security, noting that the 9/11 attacks were launched from Afghan enclaves.
He said the goal is "not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it is not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must rebuild their country."
Instead, Obama said, the mission remains "disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan" and undermining its "capacity to threaten America."
In that area, he declared significant progress in the last year, stating that "senior leaders have been killed. It's harder for them to recruit, it's harder for them to travel, it's harder for them to train, it's harder for them to plot and launch attacks. In short, al-Qaida is hunkered down."
Obama also defended setting a timetable for getting out of Afghanistan, arguing that it has led to "a sense of urgency" that has pushed the Afghan government to make progress and has resulted in U.S. allies doing more to help train Afghan security forces.
Obama claimed progress as well in working with Pakistan to force insurgents out of enclaves along the border, although he said it "has not come fast enough."
In a briefing for reporters, Gates, Clinton, and Cartwright painted an upbeat–but, they insisted, realistic–picture of the progress being made in the war.
Clinton said the partnership with Pakistan's government "is slowly but steadily improving. We have greater cooperation and understanding and that is yielding tangible results on the ground."
She insisted that the administration is not looking at the war through rose-colored glasses.
"We are clear-eyed about the way ahead," Clinton said. "We know we won't accomplish the goals the president has set forth today, tomorrow, or next month. But we are committed, and believe we are progressing."
Gates said he was optimistic that Afghan forces can "begin taking the security lead in the coming year."
But he also struck a chilling note about the Taliban.
"There's no doubt that the Taliban has a very targeted assassination program against people who are working with the coalition and people who are associated with the Afghan government," Gates said.
Rebecca Kaplan and Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article.