WASHINGTON — A new American intelligence assessment on the Afghan War predicts that the gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation, the Washington Post reported Saturday, citing unnamed officials familiar with the report.
The National Intelligence Estimate, which includes input from the country's 16 intelligence agencies, predicts that the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history, according to officials who have read the classified report or received briefings on its conclusions. They agreed to speak to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss the assessment.
The grim outlook is fueling a policy debate inside the Obama administration about the steps it should take over the next year as the U.S. military draws down its remaining troops.
The report predicts that Afghanistan would likely descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don't sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014 — a precondition for the delivery of billions of dollars in aid that the United States and its allies have pledged to spend in Afghanistan over the coming years.
That conclusion is widely shared among U.S. officials working on Afghanistan, said one official, who was among five people who discussed the assessment.
Some officials have taken umbrage at the underlying pessimism in the report, arguing that it does not adequately reflect how strong Afghanistan's security forces have become. One American official, who described the report as more dark than past intelligence assessments on the war, said there are too many uncertainties to make an educated prediction on how the conflict will unfold between now and 2017, chief among them the outcome of next year's presidential election.
U.S. intelligence analysts did not provide a detailed mapping of areas they believe are likely to become controlled by specific groups or warlords in coming years, one of the officials said. But the analysts anticipate that the central government in Kabul is all but certain to become increasingly irrelevant as it loses influence over parts of the country, the official said.
Some have interpreted the intelligence assessment as an implicit indictment of the 2009 troop surge, which President Barack Obama authorized under heavy pressure from the U.S. military in a bid to strengthen Afghan institutions and weaken the insurgency. A senior administration official said the surge enabled the development of a credible and increasingly proficient Afghan army and made it unlikely that al-Qaida could re-establish a foothold in the country where the Sept. 11 attacks were plotted.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which issues intelligence estimates, declined to comment. Officials at the White House also declined to discuss the report.
The administration has sought to get permission from Kabul to keep troops that would carry out counterterrorism and training missions beyond 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far declined to sign an agreement.
Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Afghanistan experts in and out of government have a range of outlooks. The optimists see Afghan security forces expanding their territorial control until the Taliban is forced into a peace deal. Pessimists fear the government could eventually lose control of the capital and other big cities. Biddle said he predicts a stalemate for years to come.
"Whether it's a worse or better stalemate depends on the rate at which Congress defunds the war," he said.