Pledging a "relentless" effort to win the Afghanistan war, President Obama on Thursday said Al Qaeda is "hunkered down" and that the results of a year-end strategy review show NATO forces have made significant progress in dismantling the terrorist organization.
Obama, flanked by top administration officials involved in the review, urged patience and said it will still "take time" before the mission is complete. But the president said Al Qaeda's senior leaders are under more pressure than at any time since the start of the war -- making it harder for them to recruit, train and plot attacks.
"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 organization," Obama said.
The president rejected any description of U.S.-led efforts as "nation-building" and repeated a pledge to start turning over responsibility to the Afghan government in July 2011. But the nature of the troop drawdown remained an open question, as senior military officials downplayed the timeline touted Thursday in Washington.
Though the strategy review called for a "responsible, conditions-based" drawdown starting in July, military officials told Fox News they do not expect combat troops to be leaving by that time. They dismissed the July timeframe as D.C. politics, saying the only date the military cares about is 2014. That's the date NATO forces have set for ending combat operations and turning over responsibility to the Afghan government -- the deadline was agreed to at the NATO summit in Lisbon last month. Officials told Fox News that if anybody is leaving Afghanistan by July 2011, it will be administrative troops on large bases.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday it was too early to tell how quickly the withdrawal would proceed leading up to 2014. In a summary of findings released by the Obama administration, the report predicted a "responsible reduction of U.S. forces" starting in July 2011. Apart from that, the report reiterated that the goal is a "complete transition" by 2014, with a prolonged NATO commitment to Afghanistan beyond that.
As for the progress of Obama's war strategy to date, the review states that the expansion has eroded the power of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The most promising conclusions are that the senior leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan is at its weakest since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- and that the Taliban, a constant source of violence and instability in Afghanistan, has seen much of its power halted and reversed over the last 12 months.
Obama, inheriting a war he considered adrift but vital to American security, ordered a heightened U.S. presence and a renewed commitment to supporting Afghanistan's development. There are now roughly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The report suggests that the gains against the Taliban "remain fragile and reversible."
Yet more emphasis is given to descriptions of progress.
"The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced Taliban influence," the summary says.
That is a reference mainly to the 30,000 additional forces that Obama ordered a year ago.
The review says progress is most clear in the way Afghan and coalition forces are "clearing the Taliban heartland" in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and in the boosted size and capability of Afghanistan's security forces.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Kandahar on Thursday that he considers the fight in Afghanistan's South to be a harbinger of how the wider war will go.
"We've got the right people in you," Mullen told U.S. troops. "We've got the right strategy."
Afghan army and police are scheduled to grow to more than 300,000 troops over the next two years. They face an estimated 25,000-30,000 Taliban guerrillas and other rebels.
There were no direct references to the corruption that plagues Afghanistan's government or the fractured relationship that Obama's administration shares with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
On Al Qaeda, the White House review speaks of major progress in dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership of the terror network.
"Most important, Al Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001," the report finds. It warns that the U.S. is still the principal target for Al Qaeda, and that "Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11."
The United States has lasting trouble in ridding Pakistan of its havens for terrorists.
The report raises that sore point by saying Pakistan must provide more help in solving the problem, particularly in the dangerous border zone with Afghanistan.
Obama is expected to visit Pakistan next year. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has improved substantially in the last year -- but the progress has been uneven, the report finds. The U.S. government is pledging improvements in 2011.
As plotting of terrorism continues against the United States, the defeat of Al Qaeda will be best achieved by forcefully destroying the group's sanctuaries and killings its leaders, the report says. Throughout, however, the report calls for sustained U.S. help in developing Afghanistan and Pakistan for its people, not just waging a military campaign.
This year has been the deadliest in the war for U.S. forces. At least 480 American troops have been killed in 2010, and more than 2,100 have died since the conflict began in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
The review took place over the last two months, led by Obama's national security staff, with input from across government agencies and from commanders in the war zones.
Separately, new U.S. national intelligence estimates of Afghanistan and Pakistan paint bleak pictures of security conditions inside Afghanistan and of Pakistan's willingness to rout militants on its side of the border, according to several U.S. officials briefed on both reports. U.S. military commanders have challenged the conclusions, saying they are based on outdated information that does not take into account progress made over this past fall.
Fox News' Conor Powell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.