New Afghanistan assessment reflects split U.S. views

WASHINGTON Thu Jan 12, 2012 8:51pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and NATO soldiers have weakened the Taliban but not enough to force the militants to abandon their fight against foreign troops, according to a new intelligence assessment that highlights an abiding division between the U.S. military and intelligence views on the war in Afghanistan.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan concluded that a stepped-up Western military campaign had done real damage to the Taliban's military prowess but "not enough so to change their strategic calculus."

The classified document "takes a dim view of possible futures in Afghanistan, especially with respect to the motivations of the Taliban," the official said.

A gloomy outlook for Afghanistan would raise questions about the Obama administration's stepped-up efforts to broker a peace deal between the weak government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, based in part on the assumption that weakened militants will be more likely to want an agreement.

The Office of Director of National Intelligence and the Pentagon declined comment on the existence or content of any new estimate, which brings together viewpoints from 16 different U.S. agencies about the trajectory of the Afghanistan conflict more than 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled.

Yet one source familiar with the document's contents and the debate within the U.S. government said the assessment documented disagreement among various intelligences agencies about the prognosis for Afghanistan, including "alternative views" from those who believe its conclusions were overly pessimistic.

Another source said the document was "heavily caveated."

The U.S. official said certain military leaders had objected to the findings of the assessment, whose contents were first reported in detail on Wednesday by McClatchy Newspapers.

The disagreement echoes the past disconnect between the depiction of the conflict offered by the U.S. military and that of the intelligence community, which has tended to take a more pessimistic view. Over 1,800 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

The U.S. official said the analysis put forward in the evaluation, shared only with senior officials in Congress and the executive branch, was sometimes dated by the time it was released and might not reflect current security conditions.

"It can also be time-late," he said.

The findings of the estimate are unlikely to alter the overall U.S. course in Afghanistan at this late date, as President Barack Obama withdraws a force that now stands at around 90,000 soldiers and Western nations look past a 2015 deadline for putting Afghan forces in charge of security.

The United States is expected to keep some troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 to focus on counter-terrorism and watch out for U.S. interests in a volatile region.

CONFLICTING INTERPRETATIONS

The assessment, according to sources familiar with its contents, also raised concerns about the sustainability of the progress that U.S. troops have made against the Taliban.

Whether commanders can hold on to security gains with a shrinking force is an open question as militants remain able to resupply and recover across the border in tribal areas of western Pakistan.

Along with allies in the Haqqani network, active in eastern Afghanistan, Taliban militants appear to now be focused on high-profile attacks that undermine Afghans' sense of security and undermine efforts to bolster governance and investment.

On Thursday, a suicide car bomber killed a district governor, his two young sons and his bodyguards in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, one of the areas where commanders believe a 2009-2010 troop surge has borne fruit.

"We remain committed to the strategy we have been implementing, and we believe we have achieved success based on that strategy," said Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.

In the hoped-for Afghan peace talks, the administration is launching a fresh round of shuttle diplomacy this weekend as it seeks to push ahead with a set of confidence-building measures. Those include the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar, that if successful might lead to political talks between the two Afghan sides.

The peace initiative has taken on increasing importance over the last year as more and more U.S. officials conclude that ongoing bloodshed in Afghanistan cannot be halted through military action alone.

"The judgment that the Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar remain committed to a military victory and not political reconciliation is probably right," said Bruce Riedel, a former high-ranking official at the CIA and White House.

"But the administration is also right to test the judgment in the field by talking to the Taliban in Qatar. This is a classic case of an intelligence estimate being more pessimistic than the hopes of diplomats," Riedel said.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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