Senior intelligence officials are painting a rather bleak picture of the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, pointing to "pervasive corruption," a "resilient" Taliban force, and Iranian meddling.
Senior Pentagon officials acknowledge "tough fighting" is ahead in Afghanistan, but they often describe the state of the decade-long conflict in a positive light. Just this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told senators it is a "gradually improving situation." Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said "the security situation is improving," described the Taliban as "less capable physically and psychologically," and vowed to senators that Western and Afghan fighters "have wrested the initiative and momentum ... in much of the country."
U.S. intelligence officials generally agree with those assessments. But they go much further in describing the laundry list of challenges that U.S., NATO, and Afghan commanders and officials have been unable to overcome since fighting began there in October 2001.
The differing public assessments underscore what a prominent Pentagon policy adviser recently told U.S. News & World Report: There are major differences among the military and intelligence communities about what more the U.S. can accomplish in Afghanistan.
In a mostly upbeat internal assessment of Afghanistan released last year, the Pentagon highlighted "notable gains" and "notable achievements" and "great future potential."
"The coalition's efforts have wrested major safe havens from the insurgents' control, disrupted their leadership networks and removed many of the weapons caches and tactical supplies they left behind at the end of the previous fighting season," according to that Defense Department report.
But intelligence officials tell a different story.
"We assess that the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan has lost ground in some areas," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a retired Air Force general, said this week. "However, its losses have come mainly in areas where [NATO] surge forces are concentrated; it remains resilient and capable of challenging U.S. and international goals; and Taliban senior leaders continue to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan, which enables them to provide strategic direction to the insurgency and not fear for their safety."
Senior Pentagon officials often talk of great success in a sweeping effort to build indigenous Afghan military and security forces, which U.S. officials say is the key to eventually being able to hand control over provinces there to Afghan local and national leaders.
In prepared testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey acknowledged the Afghan National Security Force requires "further development" and faces "corruption." But he devoted more space to touting the growing size of the nation's security and national police forces, and telling senators how indigenous forces "are now responsible for the day-to-day security of almost half of Afghanistan's population."
U.S. intelligence officials, however, see Afghan forces that are still almost entirely reliant on the support of NATO troops and hamstrung by corruption at all levels. Intel officials acknowledge Afghan forces have shown "marked improvements," according to Defense Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess. But he quickly adds the caveat "in some operations," and notes those missions were ones when indigenous troops were "partnered" with NATO forces.
"The [Afghan National Army's] reliance on [NATO] for many critical combat enabling functions underscores its inability to operate independently," Burgess said this week. The national police force has shown improvement, he said, "but its viability as an effective, cohesive security force currently requires [NATO's] direct oversight, partnering and support." The police force "suffers from pervasive corruption and popular perceptions that it is unable to extend security in many areas."