The Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan will intensify following the drawdown of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan later this year, according to a Pentagon-sponsored independent study.
"We conclude that the security environment in Afghanistan will become more challenging after the drawdown of most international forces in 2014, and that the Taliban insurgency will become a greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the 2015 to 2018 timeframe than it is now," the report by a panel of experts concluded.
The report was required under the 2013 defense authorization act that called for an independent study on the future of security in Afghanistan. The Pentagon contracted with CNA, a federally funded research center, for the study that was carried out by a panel of experts, including four retired generals and several former defense and national security officials.
The Islamist insurgency has been "considerably weakened" since the 2009 surge of 21,000 additional troops in the country. However, the Taliban "remains a viable threat to the government of Afghanistan."
"The coalition’s drawdown will result in a considerable reduction in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations by Afghan, U.S., and NATO forces," the report said.
The Taliban are expected to regenerate their capabilities in sanctuaries in Pakistan as military pressure on them declines.
Over the next three years, the Taliban will expand control and influence in areas left undefended by U.S. and allied troops. They also are expected to "encircle key cities and conduct high-profile attacks."
The dire assessment is a setback for President Barack Obama’s effort to bring stability to Afghanistan and end the Taliban insurgency and al Qaeda’s safe haven in the country. A 2009 White House policy statement said the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is to "to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually destroy extremists and their safe havens" in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
Contrary to those goals, the report indicates that the Taliban are continuing to destabilize the country.
The president reportedly is considering a "zero option" of removing all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. Military leaders have argued for leaving a residual force to help with training and assistance to the Afghan forces. Another possible option is to leave about 10,000 troops in the country.
However, relations between the U.S. military, the Obama administration, and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai remain strained. Karzai earlier this month authorized the release of scores of prisoners, many of whom are insurgents or linked to terrorists and attacks on Americans.
On Capitol Hill, a House Armed Services Committee aide said the report bolsters the views of Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), who has said that the zero option of withdrawing all U.S. forces is irresponsible.
"The study speaks to the importance of having a strong and credible residual presence due to the assumptions about the security environment in Afghanistan post-2014," the aide said.
Also, if Afghan national forces must reach a post-surge troop level of 352,000 troops, "then there also needs to be a commensurate residual U.S. presence to support it," the aide said.
Regarding al Qaeda, the report said, "A small group of al Qaeda members, many of whom have intermarried with local clans and forged ties with Afghan and Pakistani insurgents, remains active in the remote valleys of northeastern Afghanistan."
However, the al Qaeda terrorists do not currently pose an immediate threat to U.S. and Western nations.
"Further, so long as adequate pressure is maintained via U.S. and Afghan counterterrorism operations, the group is unlikely to regenerate the capability to become a substantial threat in the 2015 to 2018 timeframe," the report said.
To maintain security within the country, the panel recommends that Afghanistan’s security forces number around 373,400 troops to counter the Taliban and low-level al Qaeda threat.
"This number is slightly smaller than the current ANSF force size of 382,000," the report said. "We assess that this small reduction in force size can be achieved, despite the expectation of a growing insurgent threat, by redistributing some of the ANSF from areas of low threat to those of higher threat—for example, from the northern and western regions of the country to the east—and by restructuring some elements of the ANSF."
There are currently more than 58,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 38,000 U.S. troops.
The 368-page report was sent to Congress on Wednesday.
At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Defense Department’s press secretary, said the CNA report is under review.
"I'm not prepared to discuss any of the specific findings right now. We're still working our way through that," he told reporters at the Pentagon, noting that the mission now in Afghanistan is to improve the capabilities of Afghan national forces.
"We never take our eye off the Taliban insurgency or the threat that they pose, not just to us and to our allies, but to the Afghan people," he said.