The U.S. military said in a secret report that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw, raising the prospect of a major failure of Western policy after a costly war.
Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, confirmed the existence of the document, reported on Wednesday by Britian’s Times newspaper and the BBC.
But he said it was not a strategic study.
“The classified document in question is a compilation of Taliban detainee opinions,” he said. “It’s not an analysis, nor is it meant to be considered an analysis.”
Nevertheless, it could be interpreted as a damning assessment of the war, dragging into its 11th year and aimed at blocking a Taliban return to power.
It could also be seen as an admission of defeat and could reinforce the view of Taliban hardliners that they should not negotiate with the United States and President Hamid Karzai’s unpopular government while in a position of strength.
The U.S. military report could boost the Taliban’s confidence and make its leaders less willing to make concessions on demands for a ceasefire, and for the insurgency to renounce violence and break ties to al Qaeda.
But Britain’s Kabul Ambassador William Patey wrote on his official Twitter feed that “if elements of the Taliban think that in 2015 they can take control of Afghanistan they will be in for a shock”. He did not say whether he was referring directly to the leaked document.
Hours after The Times report, the Afghan Taliban said that no peace negotiation process had been agreed with the international community, “particularly the Americans”.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that prior to any negotiations, confidence building measures must be completed, putting pressure on Washington to meet demands for the release of five Taliban in U.S. custody.
The hardline Islamist movement also said it had no plans to hold preliminary peace talks with Afghanistan’s government in Saudi Arabia, dismissing media reports of talks in the kingdom.
The U.S. military said in the document that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) security agency was assisting the Taliban in directing attacks against foreign forces.
Reasserting control over the country would be more difficult a second time for the Taliban, however, with Afghan police and soldiers expected to number around 350,000 beyond 2014 and some foreign troops likely to remain, including elite forces.
Close U.S. ally Australia said on Wednesday that its special forces could be in the country for years beyond the handover, with other western nations likely to take a similar stance.
The report overshadowed a visit to Kabul by Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar designed to repair ties and consult with Karzai on possible peace talks with the Taliban.
“I can disregard this as a potentially strategic leak... This is old wine in an even older bottle,” she told reporters, reiterating Pakistan’s frequent denials it backs militant groups seeking to topple the U.S.-backed Kabul government.
Ms. Khar, whose visit was the first high-level meeting in months between officials from both countries, added that the neighbours should stop blaming each other for strained cross-border ties.
The Times said the “highly classified” report was put together by the U.S. military at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, for top NATO officers last month.
Large swathes of Afghanistan have been handed back to Afghan security forces, with the last foreign combat troops due to leave by the end of 2014. But many Afghans doubt their security forces will take firm control once the foreign troops leave.
The document may leave some U.S. policymakers wondering whether the war was worth the cost in human lives and funding.
As of late January, 1,889 U.S. soldiers had been killed in a conflict that was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and has drained almost half a trillion dollars from U.S. coffers.
“The unfortunate reality is that this is a failure of the allied strategy in Afghanistan. They have not been able to achieve the goals they set out to achieve,” said Mahmud Durrani, a former Pakistan army general and ambassador to Washington.
New accusations of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban will likely further strain ties between Western powers and Islamabad.
Critics say Pakistan uses militants as proxies to counter the growing influence of India in Afghanistan. The belief that Pakistan supports the insurgents is widely held in Afghanistan.
“It would be a mistake now for the international community to leave Afghanistan, and drop us in a dark ocean,” said Afghan telecommunications worker Farid Ahmad Totakhil.
Pakistan is reviewing ties with the United States which have suffered a series of setbacks since a U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year humiliated Pakistan’s powerful generals.
A Nov. 26 cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers deepened the crisis, prompting Pakistan to close supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is seen as critical to U.S. efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, a feat one foreign power after another has failed to accomplish over the country’s turbulent history.
Islamabad has resisted U.S. pressure to go after insurgent groups like the Taliban, and argues Washington’s approach overlooks complex realities on the ground.
Pakistan says the United States should attempt to bring all militant groups into a peace process and fears a 2014 combat troop exit could be hasty, plunging the region into the kind of chaos seen after the Soviet exit in 1989.
“They don’t need any backing,” Tariq Azim, a member of the Pakistani Senate’s Defence Committee, told Reuters, referring to the Taliban.
“Everybody knows that after 10 years, they (NATO) have not been able to control a single province in Afghanistan because of the wrong policies they have been following.
The document’s findings were based on interrogations of more than 4,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees, the Times said, adding that it identified only few individual insurgents.
Despite the presence of 130,000 foreign troops, violence is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, according to the United Nations.
The Taliban announced this month they would open a political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, to support possible peace talks with the United States.
But there has also been talk of efforts to hold separate negotiations in Saudi Arabia because Karzai fears his government could be sidelined by U.S. talks with the Taliban.