Taliban Captives Dispute US View on Afghanistan War

Kabul, Afghanistan – More Taliban insurgents are being killed or captured than ever before, yet when the captives are interrogated by the American military, they remain convinced that they are winning the war.

That is because the Taliban believe that their own hearts-and-minds campaign is winning over Afghans — or so they tell their interrogators — and even converting a growing number of Afghan government officials and soldiers.

Those are among some of the findings of a NATO report, “State of the Taliban 2012,” based on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 Taliban and other captives that portrays a Taliban insurgency that is far from vanquished or demoralized even as the United States and its allies enter what they hope will be the final phase of the war. A copy of the document, which was first reported by the BBC and The Times of London, was given to The New York Times by a Western official, on the condition of anonymity because it was classified.

The report coincides with an announcement on Wednesday by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that American forces would step back from a combat role in Afghanistan as early as mid-2013, more than a year before all American troops are scheduled to withdraw.

Yet the classified report provides a sobering counterpoint to the coalition’s decidedly more upbeat public assessments of progress in the war and of the Afghanistan that NATO says it will leave behind. It abounds with accounts of cooperation between the insurgents and local government officials or security forces, as well as accounts from Taliban detainees who claim that in areas where coalition soldiers are withdrawing, the Afghan military is cooperating with the insurgents.

“Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban,” the report says. The Afghan government “continues to declare its willingness to fight, yet many of its personnel have secretly reached out to insurgents, seeking long-term options in the event of a possible Taliban victory,” it adds.

The Taliban accounts may be influenced by the duress of interrogation or tinged with bravado. Yet the report’s findings roundly challenge many of the assumptions on which American policy in Afghanistan is based: that American military might will force the Taliban to the negotiating table; that the coalition’s counterinsurgency strategy will increase support for the Afghan government among Afghans; and that as NATO troops leave, Afghan security forces will be able to take over their responsibilities.

It also portrays a tight yet nuanced relationship between the Taliban and their Pakistani patrons, one not only of sometimes servile dependence, but also of frank enmity, and it says that the Taliban have gradually distanced themselves from Al Qaeda. The Taliban’s alliance with Al Qaeda was the reason that coalition forces entered Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Publication of the report put NATO officials on the defensive, and on Wednesday they issued an unusually detailed rebuttal. A spokesman for the NATO-led coalition played down the findings and emphasized that NATO analysts did not necessarily accept the views of the Taliban detainees as valid.

“This document aggregates the comments of Taliban detainees in a captive environment without considering the validity of or motivation behind their reflections,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. “Any conclusions drawn from this would be questionable at best.”

“It is important not to draw conclusions based on Taliban comments or musings,” Colonel Cummings said. “These detainees include some of the most motivated and ruthless of the insurgents, who are inspired to play up their success. It is what they want us to believe they think.”

In Washington, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the report reflected a limited assessment of detainees’ attitudes and would not alter American efforts to repair the badly strained relationship with Pakistan, particularly after a mistaken border attack on Pakistani troops in November.

“It was not designed for any purpose other than to help those in the field understand what Taliban detainees were saying,” Ms. Nuland said. “So it was in no way designed to impact on our ongoing efforts to be back on track with Pakistan.”

A crucial element of the American strategy in Afghanistan is to step up the tempo of raids aimed at capturing or killing insurgents, particularly midlevel commanders; in the past two years the number of detainees has more than doubled. The raids are intended to pressure the insurgents to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the war, and in recent weeks there have been steps toward starting peace talks.

The report, dated Jan. 6, provided little evidence to believe that this strategy or the increase in the number of troops during the Obama administration had helped spur the nascent peace talks. “Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable,” the report said. “Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.”

It added of the insurgents: “While they are weary of war, they see little hope for a negotiated peace. Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mind-set. For the moment, they believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable courses of action.”

Recruits and donations for the Taliban increased over the past year, the report said, citing insurgents’ accounts.

One of the most startling elements in the report is the view by detainees that the Taliban have mostly rejected their old alliance with Al Qaeda and no longer give members of the terrorist network logistical or military support.

“In most regions of Afghanistan, Taliban leaders have no interest in associating with Al Qaeda,” the report said. “Working with Al Qaeda invites targeting and Al Qaeda personnel are no longer the adept and versatile fighters and commanders they once were.”

The report said the Haqqani network, a particularly lethal Pakistan-based faction of the insurgency that once had close ties with Al Qaeda, had not had any contacts with Al Qaeda in two years, according to detainees.

The report was apparently leaked to the BBC and The Times of London on the eve of the first high-level visit to Afghanistan since last September by a Pakistani official, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, and both news organizations made much of Pakistan’s role in supporting the insurgents. Ms. Khar dismissed that as “old wine in an even older bottle.”

One former Obama administration official speculated that the American military might have been behind the leak. “The mood in Kabul is that the U.S. military are very critical of Pakistan,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of military rules about discussing classified material. “They think the problem is not the Taliban, but the ISI,” the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan’s spy agency.

Much of the Pakistani material in the report depicts a surprisingly unhappy alliance between the Taliban and the ISI. While it confirmed complaints by American officials that factions of the ISI cooperate with the Taliban, it also reported that Taliban leaders and fighters viewed their patrons with distrust and even hostility.

“ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel,” the report said. “The Haqqani family, for example, resides immediately west of the ISI office at the airfield in Miram Shah, Pakistan,” the report said. The Haqqani network has been responsible for some of the most spectacular insurgent attacks of the past year, including an assault on the American Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul in September.

“There is a widespread assumption that Pakistan will never allow the Taliban the chance to become independent of ISI control,” the report said.

At the same time, however, it reported that Taliban commanders and fighters viewed the Pakistanis with suspicion and as “untrustworthy, manipulative, controlling and demeaning,” and cooperated with them “in lieu of realistic alternatives.” And the detainees reported no evidence that ISI directly financed or supplied the Taliban in the field, working through intermediaries instead.

But it was the accounts of cooperation between the insurgents and local government officials or security forces that seemed to most upset NATO officials. “Captured photographs of Taliban personnel riding openly in the green Ford Ranger pickup trucks of the Afghan army are commonplace throughout Afghanistan,” the report said, adding that the vehicles were “sold or donated” to the Taliban. Elsewhere it cited a document related to a plot between Afghan intelligence agents and the Taliban to ambush American soldiers.

Some of the newest material in the report covered extensive efforts by the Taliban to improve their relations with local people. The Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, has promoted a code of conduct that sets out how insurgents should deal with people, including rules on avoiding civilian casualties and excessively brutal punishments.

The group has even instituted “hot line” numbers for citizens to make complaints about their treatment by insurgents, and it sends fact-finding committees out from headquarters in Quetta, eliciting complaints against local Taliban leaders.

The report, which also included interrogations of non-Taliban civilians who were arrested after sweeps of their communities, cited the high marks the insurgents received for their judicial activities, which in contrast to many government court actions, were offered to people without demands for payments or bribes.

Reporting was contributed by Declan Walsh and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan; Sharifullah Sahak from Kabul; and Steven Lee Myers from Washington.