WASHINGTON — A new top-secret U.S. intelligence assessment warns that Taliban leaders haven't abandoned their goal of reclaiming power and reimposing harsh Islamic rule on Afghanistan, raising doubts about the success of any peace deal that the Obama administration tries to broker between Kabul and the insurgents.
The National Intelligence Estimate presented to President Barack Obama last month also concluded that security gains won since last year's 30,000-strong U.S. troop surge may be unsustainable, a finding that top U.S. commanders and the White House dispute, according to U.S. officials and people familiar with the report's findings.
"We have heard that the report offers a very dire assessment. We don't agree," said a senior U.S. defense official, who like all of those whom McClatchy interviewed for this report spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The NIE came as the White House is examining ways to boost "reconciliation" — the U.S.-backed initiative to start peace talks — as an American troop drawdown and a phased hand-over of security responsibilities to Afghan forces are completed in December 2014, the officials and knowledgeable people said. The assessment is expected to be finished before a NATO summit in Chicago in May, at which the alliance will review plans for the security transition.
Obama has said repeatedly that the longest war in U.S. history can be settled only through negotiations between the Afghan government and the insurgents — not by force.
Earlier this month, the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership agreed after a year of secret contacts to open a political office in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar, raising U.S. hopes that peace talks might be possible.
"With the possibility of new progress on reconciliation, it is only natural that we are very carefully deliberating how we move forward," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. He declined to comment on the NIE.
U.S. officials caution that negotiations are a long shot and could take several years to convene, leaving lots of time for the effort to collapse.
"Nothing has been concluded. We are still in the preliminary stages of testing whether this can be successful," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday in announcing that U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman would travel to Afghanistan next week to pursue the initiative.
Before it embraces the opening of the Qatar office, the administration is looking for confidence-building measures from the Taliban — such as renouncing violence and observing cease-fires in select areas of Afghanistan — said a person who's familiar with the issue.
The two sides also would have to deal with other issues. Already, officials said, the insurgents are refusing to admit an Afghan government representative to the discussions, something that Washington assured Afghan President Hamid Karzai it would seek. The Taliban also are spurning participation by Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan.
The White House, meanwhile, is still considering a Taliban demand for the release of five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. official said.
"Where this is headed is very uncertain," one knowledgeable person said.
Adding to the uncertainty is the new NIE's finding that the main Taliban leadership council, the Quetta Shura, shows no sign of giving up on its goal of reclaiming control of Afghanistan and reimposing Islamic rule on the war-ravaged nation of 33 million.
While in power from 1996 to 2001, the fundamentalist movement staged public executions, barred women from work and education, forced men to grow beards, persecuted religious minorities and harbored al Qaida and allied terrorist groups.
The NIE "is very pessimistic," a U.S. official said. "There is no indication that the Taliban are ready to settle for a goal short of total control over an Islamic emirate."
The review has renewed a debate between the White House, led by Vice President Joe Biden, and the Pentagon and State Department over the pace of the U.S. troop drawdown, according to several of those interviewed.
Biden and other White House officials, concerned about the war's costs and Obama's tough re-election bid, favor an accelerated drawdown. Military and diplomatic officials, arguing that a buildup of Afghan forces requires more time, want to stick to the plan of keeping some 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan through the 2014 fighting season.
"The precise pace of the drawdown between now and 2014 has yet to be defined," a second senior U.S. defense official said.
NIEs, the highest-level U.S. intelligence assessments, are produced by the National Intelligence Council, a board that comprises the senior-most U.S. intelligence analysts. They reflect the consensus of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, and their distribution is restricted to the president, his top aides and Congress.
The Quetta Shura, the NIE found, remains locked into its political objectives despite the hammering its forces have taken since last year's U.S. troop surge into the insurgent strongholds of southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces, officials said. An intensified U.S.-led campaign of night raids and drone strikes also has hurt the Taliban.
"There is no give at this point by the Omar group," one knowledgeable person said, referring to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the head of the Quetta Shura, which is named for its sanctuary in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's province of Baluchistan.
The finding raises doubts about whether the council will adhere to any peace pact with the Karzai government. Its refusal to do so almost certainly would plunge Afghanistan back into a civil war between the Taliban, who mostly comprise the main Pashtun ethnic group, and the ethnic minorities of the former Northern Alliance — a scenario raised by the NIE, a U.S. official said.
In separate comments appended to the NIE, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, and the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, concurred in the judgment that the Taliban have shown no readiness to abandon their political goal, the U.S. official, the two senior U.S. defense officials and one knowledgeable person said.
But Allen, Crocker and Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for Afghanistan, also shared a White House view that the NIE is "unduly pessimistic" — as the U.S. official put it — in warning that the security gains achieved in Kandahar and Helmand may not be sustainable.
The NIE, the knowledgeable person said, also was flawed because it focused on the Quetta Shura and didn't consider the objectives of the allied Haqqani network or local Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, who may not agree with their Pakistan-based leadership.
The assessment also didn't consider the objectives of Pakistan, whose security establishment is widely thought to be backing the Afghan insurgency in order to prevent rival India from gaining influence in Kabul after the U.S. drawdown, he said.
Recalibrating American strategy to promote reconciliation holds significant implications for U.S.-led international diplomatic and military efforts to end the war, experts said.
The current approach included reconciliation among several U.S. political objectives — along with building up Afghan security forces and boosting popular support for Karzai through improved local governance and a crackdown on corruption — and coupled them with intensified military pressure on the insurgents.
Much, however, has transpired since Obama unveiled that strategy in December 2009: the killing of Osama bin Laden, damaging U.S. strikes on al Qaida operatives in Pakistan, better security in southern Afghanistan and a serious crisis in relations with Pakistan.
Domestically, Obama is running for re-election amid strong opposition to the war, demands for federal spending cuts, persistent high unemployment and a sluggish economic recovery.
Moreover, key objectives of the current U.S. strategy have proved to be unachievable. Local governance remains poor, high-level corruption is raging, Karzai remains weak and the administration has failed to convince Pakistan to crack down on Afghan insurgent sanctuaries despite billions of dollars in economic and military assistance.
Last June, Obama unveiled the drawdown plan, which already has pulled out 10,000 soldiers. It calls for withdrawing the 30,000 "surge" troops by next summer, followed by most of the remaining 68,000 service members by the end of 2014.
Regardless of the drawdown's pace, the Pentagon already is planning to recalibrate the military mission from emphasizing offensive operations to reacting to threats that Afghan forces can't handle, two military officials told McClatchy.
U.S. troops also will rely more on intelligence, air power, special forces operations and nonmilitary methods to capture insurgents, and will concentrate more on training Afghan forces, they said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage, visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.