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US Intelligence Raises Concerns About Afghanistan Pullout

FILE - Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie (center) makes an unannounced visit in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2020.
FILE - Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie (center) makes an unannounced visit in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2020.

U.S. intelligence agencies are not optimistic about the prospects for a peaceful Afghanistan with or without the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

In a report on global threats issued Tuesday, intelligence analysts warned that the prospects for a peace deal between the Afghan government "will remain low" for the coming year.

They further warned that the Taliban believe they can successfully use force to shape the political reality on the ground.

"Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory," according to the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Afghan security forces "remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020," the report said.

"The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield," it added, cautioning that "the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support."

The ODNI report, known as the Annual Threat Assessment, was put together and issued before word came from the White House on Tuesday that U.S. President Joe Biden will announce that U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan until September, missing a May 1 withdrawal deadline set under last year's agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban.

But the report is consistent with previous intelligence assessments that have likewise warned the Afghan government forces are vulnerable and could fall without persistent support from the U.S. and its allies.

No decrease in Taliban violence

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned the Defense Department's inspector general in January that negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were unlikely to lead to any meaningful reduction in violence.

"The Taliban has calibrated its use of violence to increase political leverage against the Afghan government through military gains while generally avoiding activity that it believes would threaten the agreement with the United States," the inspector general report said.

DIA analysts also cautioned that it seemed as though Taliban leadership was intent on securing a U.S. withdrawal so it could seek a decisive victory over the Afghan government.

More recently, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan were questioned in a report released last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The Taliban "have not significantly changed their tactics," the report said. "Each quarter since the (U.S.-Taliban) agreement was signed has seen a higher average number of enemy-initiated attacks compared to the same quarters in 2019."

Western intelligence officials likewise raised alarms about the prospects for Afghanistan without U.S. and coalition troops, warning in recent months they had yet to see any indications the Taliban would adhere to the bargain they made with the U.S.

An opportunity for terror groups?

Concerns remain, as well, that terror groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State continue to maintain a presence in Afghanistan and see the idea of a peace deal and a U.S. withdrawal as an opportunity.

Al-Qaida, while weakened, remains entrenched within the Taliban's command structures in Afghanistan, according to DIA analysis, while Taliban pressure on the Islamic State's Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, has eased, allowing it to regroup and retrench.

On Tuesday, a senior administration official sought to allay some of the concerns about al-Qaida and IS.

"We are not taking our eye off of the terrorist threat or signs of al-Qaida's resurgence," the official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.

"In coordination with our Afghan partners and with other allies, we will reposition our counterterrorism capabilities retaining significant assets in the region to counter the potential reemergence of a terrorist threat to the homeland," the official added. "We can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without remaining at war with the Taliban."

That type of approach, though, has worried both current and former officials, who have warned the fallout could be significant.

"Afghanistan is more dependent on international support than ever before," John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned during a virtual talk last month, noting that in addition to U.S. and NATO troops, Afghan forces are reliant upon thousands of trainers and contractors.

"It may not be an overstatement that if foreign assistance is withdrawn and peace negotiations fail, Taliban forces could be at the gates of Kabul in short order," Sopko said.

Retired U.S. General and former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus has also warned that pulling out U.S. troops "could prove quite catastrophic."

"We shouldn't be so U.S.-centric as to think that just by withdrawing our forces that the war ends," Petraeus told VOA's Press Conference USA on April 6. "We should have a sustained, sustainable commitment to that country and enable the Afghan security forces and key institutions in their struggle with the insurgents who are eroding the security."