A member of a U.S. military route-clearance team works in Kunduz province… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies warn in a new, classified assessment that insurgents could quickly regain control of key areas of Afghanistan and threaten the capital as soon as 2015 if American troops are fully withdrawn next year, according to two officials familiar with the findings.
The National Intelligence Estimate, which was given recently to the White House, has deeply concerned some U.S. officials. It represents the first time the intelligence community has formally warned that the Afghan government could face significantly more serious attacks in Kabul from a resurgent Taliban within months of a U.S. pullout, the officials said, speaking anonymously to discuss classified material.
The assessment also concludes that security conditions probably will worsen regardless of whether the U.S. keeps troops in the country.
"It's very pessimistic about the future, more pessimistic than ever before," said one of the officials.
The new analysis comes as the chief allied commander in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., has recommended keeping 12,000 troops in the country after next year. In private discussions this month with President Obama and his top advisors, Dunford has proposed that the U.S. keep 8,000 troops in the country and that other countries contribute 4,000, according to one of the officials.
Under Dunford's plan, about one-sixth of the force — around 1,800 to 2,000 special operations troops — would be reserved for counter-terrorism operations, the official said. The rest would support, train and advise Afghan commanders, but would be barred in most cases from participating in combat except for self-defense.
Dunford warned that fewer than 12,000 troops would not be enough to carry out meaningful training of Afghan forces and counter-terrorism operations and still protect the handful of U.S. and international bases that would remain. If forced to go below 12,000, Dunford told White House advisors, he would favor withdrawing virtually all U.S. troops and keeping only a token force of several hundred, the official said.
The general's recommendation and the intelligence assessment frame a sharp debate within the Obama administration over whether the U.S. should keep some troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The administration has sought to do so, but that course has become more uncertain in recent months as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign an agreement that the two sides negotiated authorizing a continued troop presence.
Some White House officials have argued that the administration should be willing to accept the so-called zero option of withdrawing all troops at the end of 2014. Those favoring full withdrawal appear to have been bolstered by the intelligence assessment's conclusion that security gains achieved since 2010 in the south and east of the country are likely to significantly erode in the next three years even if the U.S. and its allies maintain a modest troop presence.
But Susan Rice, Obama's national security advisor, is said to be leaning toward Dunford's plan.
The intelligence estimate, the findings of which were first disclosed by the Washington Post, reflects a consensus view of all 16 intelligence agencies.
Along with its other findings, the assessment warns that the U.S. ability to carry out drone strikes and other counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda and other militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan will probably become more constrained as political opposition to such operations grows in both countries, the officials said.
In response to questions, an administration spokesperson, who insisted on anonymity, said Obama "has not yet made any decisions about troop numbers, nor will he" without a signed agreement with Afghanistan permitting troops to remain after 2014.
"We will be weighing inputs from our military commanders, as well as the intelligence community, our diplomats and development experts as we make decisions on our post-2014 presence," the official said.
Dunford did not submit a formal dissent to the intelligence assessment, a step several of his predecessors have taken in response to past intelligence reports they regarded as overly pessimistic about Afghanistan's future, another official said.
Pentagon officials said the CIA and other intelligence agencies have long underestimated the Afghan army and police. Despite still-severe shortcomings, the Afghans have fought aggressively in some parts of the country over the last year as the U.S. has pulled back from an active combat role, they said.
Dunford's plan calls for locating most of the 8,000 U.S. troops who would remain in Afghanistan at Bagram air base, which is north of Kabul, and at Kandahar air base in the south. A small contingent would be based around Kabul, to help train Afghan forces.
Troops from other countries would be located near Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west, one of the officials said.