WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. intelligence officials offered a bleak view of the war in Afghanistan in testimony to Congress on Thursday, an assessment they acknowledged was more pessimistic than that of the military commanders in charge.
“I would like to begin with current military operations in Afghanistan, where we assess that endemic corruption and persistent qualitative deficiencies in the army and police forces undermine efforts to extend effective governance and security,” Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at its annual worldwide threat hearing.
The Afghan army remains reliant on U.S. and international forces for logistics, intelligence and transport, he said. And “despite successful coalition targeting, the Taliban remains resilient and able to replace leadership losses while also competing to provide governance at the local level. From its Pakistani safe havens, the Taliban leadership remains confident of eventual victory.”
Burgess testified alongside James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who said that the Taliban lost ground in the last year, “but that was mainly in places where the International Security Assistance Forces, or ISAF, were concentrated, and Taliban senior leaders continued to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan.”
Clapper was asked by committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., about reports in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere describing a recent National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan that questioned whether the Afghan government would survive as the U.S. steadily pulls out its troops and reduces military and civilian assistance.
The gloomy findings prompted a sharp one-page dissent by Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the commander of Western forces in the war, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. The comment was also signed by Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Adm. James Stavridis, supreme allied commander of NATO.
“Without going into the specifics of classified National Intelligence Estimates, I can certainly confirm that they took issue with the NIE on three counts, having to do with the assumptions that were made about force structure — didn’t feel that we gave sufficient weight to Pakistan and its impact as a safe haven, and generally felt that the NIE was pessimistic,” Clapper said.
Levin asked, “Pessimistic about that or about other matters as well?” Clapper replied, “Just generally it was pessimistic” about the situation in Afghanistan and the prospects for a U.S. drawdown in 2014.
Clapper, who has served nearly half a century around U.S. intelligence, argued that it was only natural for intelligence analysts to see things differently than ground commanders in a war.
“If you’ll forgive a little history, sir,” he said, “I served as an analyst briefer for Gen. (William) Westmoreland in Vietnam in 1966. I kind of lost my professional innocence a little bit then when I found out that operational commanders sometimes don’t agree with their view of the success of their campaign as compared to and contrasted with that perspective displayed by intelligence.
“Classically, intelligence is supposedly in the portion of the glass that’s half empty, and operational commanders and policymakers, for that matter, are often in the portion of the glass that’s half full,” he said. “Probably the truth is somewhere at the water line. So I don’t find it a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s healthy that there is contrast between what the operational commanders believe and what the intelligence community assesses.”