Feb. 2 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. and other intelligence reports are at odds with claims by President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials that the Taliban are in retreat, Afghan security forces are growing stronger and the Afghan government is becoming more effective.
A National Intelligence Estimate given to Obama last month concluded that the Taliban remain resilient and determined to re-impose their brand of harsh Islamic rule on the country, and that Afghan forces and the civilian government are still plagued by corruption and ineffectiveness. The estimate, the consensus view of the intelligence community, was described by two U.S. officials who have read it and agreed to discuss it only anonymously because it’s classified.
In his Jan. 24 State of the Union message to Congress, Obama said the “the Taliban’s momentum has been broken,” enabling a transition to the Afghan government and security forces.
“We’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan,” Obama said, drawing applause from lawmakers. “Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. The transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America.”
Other top American officials have underscored the White House message. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday said the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan aims to end most of its combat role starting in the middle of next year, ahead of the planned withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2014.
Much of the Atlantic alliance is saying the same thing, as Panetta and other NATO defense ministers gather today in Brussels. Coalition forces are making good progress in Afghanistan and their Afghan counterparts will take responsibility for all security by the end of 2014, a senior NATO official told reporters yesterday.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Jan. 30, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whose office prepares all National Intelligence Estimates, was less optimistic.
The Taliban’s losses have come mainly in areas where coalition forces are concentrated, he said, and the militant Islamist group “remains resilient and capable of challenging U.S. and international goals.”
“Taliban senior leaders continue to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan, which enables them to provide strategic direction to the insurgency and not fear for their safety,” he said.
While coalition assistance has begun to show “signs of sustainable progress at the tactical and ministerial levels,” Clapper said, “corruption as well as poor leadership and management will threaten Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) operational effectiveness.”
The Afghan government has made only “incremental improvements extending the rule of law” and provinces still struggle to provide essential service, he said.
Moreover, “2 access to official governance is primarily limited to urban areas, such as district and provincial capitals, leaving much of the rural population isolated from the government,” he said.
As for its economy, Clapper said, “Afghanistan is the largest supplier of illicit opium to the world market and probably produces enough to fulfill yearly global demand for illicit opiates. Afghans earned $1.8 billion from the opiate trade, equivalent to 12 percent of the licit GDP in 2010, according to the U.S. government, International Monetary Fund and United Nations estimates.”
Other intelligence reports are similarly downbeat.
Taliban Victory ‘Inevitable’
“State of the Taliban,” a NATO report based on interrogations of thousands of captured Taliban prisoners, said that some Afghan soldiers are collaborating with the Taliban, even selling weapons and vehicles and providing intelligence on coalition forces, the BBC reported yesterday.
Once the coalition withdraws, “the Taliban considers victory inevitable,” according to an excerpt of the report posted on the BBC website.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu declined to comment on a classified document during a briefing in Brussels yesterday.
Separately, a U.S. Defense Department report provided to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee yesterday said that Afghan army and police forces or civilian contractors have attacked U.S.-led coalition forces at least 46 times since May 2007, including an attack yesterday in which an Afghan soldier shot and killed a U.S. Marine in the southern province of Helmand.
‘The Insider Threat’
“The insider threat is an issue of increasing significance to coalition forces and Afghan national security forces operating in Afghanistan,” David Sedney, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, and other Pentagon officials said in prepared testimony. “It creates distrust between our forces and their Afghan counterparts during a critical juncture in Afghanistan.”
Panetta and other officials don’t dispute the intelligence estimates. They argue instead that the latest is already outdated because such documents take months to prepare. In addition, they said, the National Intelligence Estimate doesn’t include a look at what might happen if the U.S. and its allies provide more support to the Afghan government and security forces after 2014.
“The problem with an NIE is that you basically take a picture of a situation at a given time, and sometimes it doesn’t take into consideration what’s happening at the moment,” Panetta told reporters yesterday.
No Rapid Improvement
The other problem “is that I think their conclusion was based on the fact that we would have no presence beyond 2014, which is not going to be the case, and we pointed that out as well,” he said.
Still, the NIE doesn’t forecast rapid improvements in Afghan security forces or governance, or a Taliban defeat, even at the current levels of foreign assistance, said the two U.S. officials. Both domestic politics and budget pressures in the U.S. and Europe make it unclear whether even those levels can be sustained, they said.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his nation will withdraw its troops a year before the 2014 date that NATO set at a 2010 meeting in Lisbon.
Sticking with the plan to pull out most coalition forces on schedule is a more popular course in the U.S. and Western Europe than trying to slow the withdrawal, given waning public, congressional and European support for the war.
“Absent some big set of events in Afghanistan, I think the withdrawal narrative is a positive one for the president,” said Democratic political consultant Tad Devine in a telephone interview. “If nothing big happens, he can talk about how he oversaw the end of the war in Iraq and now is ending the war in Afghanistan.”
--With assistance from Viola Gienger in Washington and James G. Neuger in Brussels. Editors: Terry Atlas, Jim Rubin.
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