President Barack Obama offered Americans an optimistic assessment of the Afghanistan war on Thursday, even as US spy agencies and aid groups express doubts about the progress amid worsening violence. Obama, under pressure to show results after criticizing his predecessor George W. Bush for neglecting the war, said the United States was on track to start pulling out troops next July as planned. His defense secretary, Robert Gates, said it was too early to say how quickly troops would be withdrawn, but Washington hoped to accelerate the drawdown as more progress was made. Obama wants to end the US combat mission in Afghanistan and transition to full Afghan security control by 2014. A five-page unclassified summary of the White House review said US and NATO forces had made notable operational gains, halting the Talibans momentum in many areas and disrupting al-Qaeda. But it said the gains were fragile and reversible and that major challenges remained. It reported substantial but uneven progress in the US relationship with Pakistan, whose lawless tribal areas are widely seen as the main obstacle to Obamas strategy succeeding because of the relatively free flow of militants across the border into Afghanistan. I want to be clear, this continues to be a very difficult endeavor, Obama said at the White House on Thursday, a year after he ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. But, he added, Were on track to achieve our goals. The review comes at the end of the bloodiest year since US-backed Afghan forces ousted the Taliban as the countrys rulers in 2001, with almost 700 foreign troops killed so far. At least 477 of them were Americans. Yet Afghan civilians bear the brunt of the conflict as insurgents expand from strongholds into once-peaceful areas in the north and west. On Thursday, a roadside bomb killed 14 civilians in western Afghanistan and four Afghan soldiers died in a US air strike overnight. There were no surprises in the summary, whose conclusions had been well-telegraphed by US officials in the lead-up to Thursday, and it included no supporting data for its cautiously positive findings. Karzai not mentioned Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obamas key ally in the war, did not rate a mention in the document. The two men have had sometimes-tense relations and critics accuse Karzai of failing to clamp down on corruption and improve governance. The upbeat public assessment of the war by US military officials and the White House is not shared by Americas intelligence agencies and aid agencies working in Afghanistan. US spy agencies have given the White House a more pessimistic assessment of the counter-insurgency strategy. Two officials told Reuters the agencies believe long-term progress in Afghanistan will remain difficult until Pakistan takes firmer action against militants on the border. Buried in the summary is the acknowledgment of two significant challenges for the stabilization effort: the continuing Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and the poor quality of governance in Afghanistan, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. In fact, both issues remain enormous obstacles for success, she said. Aid groups including the International Committee of the Red Cross expect violence in Afghanistan to worsen next year, making it harder to reach people in need. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed suggestions that the Obama administration was presenting an overly rosy view of the war. I think were clear-eyed and realistic, she said. Obamas renewed commitment to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 may help to appease the left wing of his Democratic Party and others weary of nine years of war. (The Zaman)