Obama: Still on track to remove Afghanistan troops

WASHINGTON (AP) — Citing “huge challenges” ahead, President Barack Obama says he still intends to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next year and says the administration’s strategy for winding down the war remains unchanged.

Obama made his declaration in a letter to congressional leaders Friday. The letter accompanied a semiannual report assessing the administration’s policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The letter reports improvement in the fight against al-Qaida, as well as a reversal in the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan and headway in the training of Afghan security forces.

“Huge challenges remain, and this is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war,” Obama wrote.

The 33,000 troops represent the force surge Obama announced in December 2009. Last June, he announced the withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and the 33,000 surge troops would leave Afghanistan by the summer of 2012.

In his letter, Obama said that plan was still on track.

The report is less upbeat about Pakistan, however, citing continued U.S.-Pakistan strains over the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It also addresses continued political instability in Pakistan that has confounded efforts to undertake economic reforms.

U.S. contributions to Pakistan’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts decreased because of reductions in the U.S. military presence in Pakistan at the request of the Islamabad government, the report said.

There is no mention of the links that U.S. official have alleged between Pakistan intelligence and the Haqqani insurgent network. But the report contains two classified annexes that were not made public.

“Insurgent activity and high-profile strikes against security and government forces contributed to a decline in the security situation,” the report stated.

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