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Intel Agencies Offer Gloomy View of Afghan War

December 15, 2010 at 5:05 PM EDT
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Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times talks with Margaret Warner about an upcoming review of the war in Afghanistan, and what intelligence reports reveal about the region.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: new intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Tomorrow, the White House presents its long-awaited review of how much progress has been made in the Afghan war since the president’s surge of U.S. forces there.

Today, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported on two classified national intelligence assessments, one of Afghanistan, one on Pakistan, that have gone into that review. The NIEs represent the collective view of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. They were said to offer a gloomy view of the state of play, especially when it comes to Pakistan’s unwillingness to take out Afghan militant sanctuaries on its territory.

For more, we go to Elisabeth Bumiller, a Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. And, Elisabeth, welcome back.

Now, there have been a lot of intelligence assessments all along this — the process of this war. What makes these special?

ELISABETH BUMILLER, The New York Times: These — well, because they’re current, or relatively current, and because one is focused on Afghanistan, one is focused on Pakistan, and because, right now, it’s the moment for viewing Afghanistan.

And they’re important because, again, they represent all the views of all these intelligence agencies, with, I would say, a very heavy input from the CIA and from the Defense Intelligence Agency. They’re the main drafting agencies.

MARGARET WARNER: So, the headline on your piece and the lead was, essentially, more negative in tone, certainly, than what we have been hearing from Secretary Gates or General Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces there, lately.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: How so?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: They are more focused on the problem of Pakistan. I mean, there’s not — overall there’s large areas of agreement. I mean, the military agrees Pakistan is a big problem.

And it’s the analysis that there will be — there will be very limited chance of success without Pakistan flushing out insurgents in its border region with Afghanistan. And the military says, yes, that’s a problem, but we think we can do it without Pakistan, which is an interesting shift, because, all along, they have been trying to push Pakistan to get rid of those insurgents.

And now they’re saying, well, we don’t think it’s going to happen; we are going to just press forward.

MARGARET WARNER: One thing I just wanted to clarify is to what degree you have actually seen these NIEs.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Right. Oh, that was — I made clear in the story that I have not seen them. However, they were — a number of American officials described them to me and to my colleagues, Mark Mazzetti, David Sanger. So, we got descriptions from a group of people.

MARGARET WARNER: So, back to the findings. I want to get to Pakistan in a minute, but let me just ask, first of all, do they dispute what General Petraeus and Secretary Gates have been saying about, at least in military terms, that U.S. and Afghan forces have been regaining some of the momentum against the Taliban, especially in the south?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: No one disputes that.

I think that that is generally agreed upon now in Helmand Province and in Kandahar Province, where the extra forces have been concentrated. There are 20,000 Marines in Helmand Province alone. Now, you send 20,000 Marines almost anywhere, there’s going to be a change.

And there has been, even in places like Marjah, which was considered a failure, by some accounts, six months ago. It’s now relatively stable in parts of it. And there has been some success around Kandahar, in the districts around Kandahar, which is the sort of spiritual home of the Taliban.

The question is, how sustainable is that? Can — can this be — how many more Marjahs do you need to do, as one White House official said to me not too long ago, and can the Afghan forces do it on their own once the U.S. leaves?

MARGARET WARNER: And that takes us back to what role Pakistan is and will play. So, tell us a little bit more about what these NIEs at least say about Pakistan’s role, how extensively they’re assisting the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents who are in the border area and cross over and attack U.S. and Afghan forces.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, actually, I don’t think it’s just the NIEs. I think it’s — the entire Obama administration right now acknowledges what is a big problem this is, is that the Pakistani intelligence service is using these proxy insurgent groups on the border to — to — they go right across the border.

Commanders were saying that last week in the eastern part of Afghanistan, that they go right across the border. They plant homemade bombs. They attack American forces, and then they go right back across to Pakistan for rest.

MARGARET WARNER: For rest and relaxation.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Resupply, refitting. And so — and we’re only at war officially in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do these reports or at least what you know about them say whether the Pakistani military at the highest levels is just allowing this to happen, or were — there are rogue elements that are assisting them, or whether, in fact, the Pakistani military at the highest levels is engaged in this?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: I can’t answer that question. They certainly say that there are rogue elements within the Pakistani intelligence service.

They also say that there’s been basically lip service paid by General Kayani, who’s the head of the military in Pakistan. You know, General Petraeus just last week praised Kayani for saying, yes, we acknowledge this is a problem.

But that’s basically what the Pakistanis have said for two or three years.

MARGARET WARNER: So, now, you have said that General Petraeus thinks he can — quote — “win the conflict.” I shouldn’t use the word win, because he doesn’t…

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: … but get to a reasonable conclusion without assistance from Pakistan.

What’s his rationale?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, I don’t know that he’s come out and said that explicitly. But the — what I hear from military sources is that right now we’re doing it. The question is…

MARGARET WARNER: Because we’re degrading the Taliban?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Yes. They’re killing Taliban or capturing Taliban on the border, in the border region, and…

MARGARET WARNER: And building up the Afghan army.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Yes. And the strategy right now is — it’s not perfect — is that — to continue doing this, to the point that in a number of years, the Afghan forces can at least contain and manage the problem on their own.

That’s a big, big, big if.

MARGARET WARNER: So, very briefly — we only have a couple seconds left — what’s the headline going to be out of the review tomorrow?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Some progress. More needs to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: But, meanwhile, stay the course tactically, strategically?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Right, right, absolutely, because the next big assessment will come in the summer. And that, the White House is saying, is the more important — it’s the more important assessment of what troops are pulled out and — and…

MARGARET WARNER: And when.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: And when, yes. Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, thank you.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Thanks.