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Obama to Speak on Accomplishments, Challenges in Afghanistan, Pakistan

President Barack Obama speaks to the troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, 03 Dec 2010
President Barack Obama speaks to the troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, 03 Dec 2010

President Obama will speak on Thursday about the status of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan.  Remarks by Mr. Obama and U.S. officials will mark the completion of a government-wide assessment of accomplishments and challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and steps to thwart al-Qaida and extremists advances.  

The much anticipated report by the president's national security team encompasses the views of multiple U.S. government agencies and the military about the situation in Afghanistan.

Previewing the president's remarks, the White House said there will be no major surprises and that in reality, what was originally described in media reports as a major review will in fact be just the latest in a series assessments of conditions on the ground.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs played down comparisons between Thursday's remarks, and Mr. Obama's speech one year ago at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  

In that address, Mr. Obama announced a surge of 30,000 additional troops aimed at stepping up pressure on Taliban forces in key areas of Afghanistan.  Those forces enabled a new U.S. and NATO commander, General David Petraeus to implement his strategies.  

Gibbs said the president will report progress in slowing the momentum of Taliban forces, and success in counter-terrorism efforts aimed at de-grading the senior leadership of al-Qaida.  Gibbs summarized Mr. Obama's overall focus.

"The president set out a series of goals in his West Point speech," said Gibbs. "Are we making progress with this strategy in meeting those goals?  What is working, what has to be refined, what progress have we made, what challenges persist and how do we address those challenges?"

President Obama's remarks follow the final scheduled meeting of the year of his special national security team on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are also expected to brief reporters at the White House.

But Mr. Obama and his team now face a void left by the man who led them, veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who died this week of complications from heart surgery.

As Mr. Obama and other NATO leaders made clear at their summit in Lisbon, they are determined that a transition of responsibilities to Afghan security forces be based on conditions on the ground, and be completed by 2014.

Nothing in the new national security report on Afghanistan, says White House spokesman Gibbs, will place in question the beginning of a U.S. troop drawdown scheduled to begin in July of next year.

The president's spokesman provided a glimpse of one issue Mr. Obama is likely to focus on in his remarks, namely Pakistan's commitment to dealing with extremists within its borders that are making the job in Afghanistan more difficult.

Gibbs said the views of Richard Holbrooke regarding Pakistan, which the U.S. generally describes as having become more willing to cooperate, were represented during this week's AF-PAK meeting.  But he says the review makes clear that improvement is needed.

"We are certainly clear with our partners in Pakistan on this, and I think it will be clear again in the document, that as we have seen greater cooperation, challenges remain," he said.

The president also faces some intense skepticism about his Afghanistan strategy in Congress, where it will be up to lawmakers to approve funding in coming years.  Of particular concern, aside from the ongoing cost to Americans, is the question of corruption in the Afghan government.

Though the president has stuck with is pledge to begin a U.S. drawdown in July, Democratic  Senator Barbara Boxer used a speech on the floor of the Senate this week to voice concern about any delay.

"I support beginning to bring the troops home in 2011," she said. "There is some talk that it might be extended to another year.  I don't support that."

There will be two versions of the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review, one for public consumption, the other classified.

It's certain there will be hearings on Capitol Hill in the new year on the president's strategy in House and Senate committees.

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