KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban, backed by Pakistan, remains confident despite a decade of NATO efforts that it will retake control of Afghanistan, NATO said in a new classified report that raises more questions about Afghanistan's future as foreign forces withdraw.
"Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact," according to an excerpt of the report, published by the Times of London and the BBC.
"While they are weary of war, they see little hope for a negotiated peace. Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset. For the moment, they believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable courses of action," the published excerpts said.
Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, confirmed the existence of the document, but military officials downplayed it as a depiction of the views of thousands of Taliban detainees who were interviewed by NATO officials.
"The classified document in question is a compilation of Taliban detainee opinions," Cummings said. "It's not an analysis, nor is it meant to be considered an analysis."
Still, the published excerpts paint a troubling picture of the Afghan war more than 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled, and as foreign forces begin to go home in earnest.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday the United States was aiming to complete its combat role in Afghanistan by mid- to late 2013, shifting to a training role.
The report's findings - including assertions that the Taliban had not formally split from international extremists - could also reinforce the view of Taliban hard-liners that they should not negotiate with the United States and President Hamid Karzai's unpopular government while in a position of strength.
Hours after the Times report, the Afghan Taliban said that no peace negotiation process had been agreed to with the international community, "particularly the Americans."
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that before any negotiations, confidence-building measures must be completed, putting pressure on Washington to meet demands for the release of five Taliban in U.S. custody.
The hard-line Islamist movement also said it had no plans to hold preliminary peace talks with Afghanistan's government in Saudi Arabia, dismissing media reports of talks in the kingdom.
Britain's Kabul ambassador, William Patey, wrote on his Twitter feed that "if elements of the Taliban think that in 2015 they can take control of Afghanistan they will be in for a shock." He did not say if he was referring to the NATO report.
"We really do believe that militarily we are making an impact on the Taliban," said Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
The published excerpts of the report also gave further indication of the Taliban's reliance on neighboring Pakistan, where elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency has long had links to the Taliban.
"Reflections from detainees indicate that Pakistan's manipulation of Taliban senior leadership continues unabated. The Taliban themselves do not trust Pakistan, yet there is a widespread acceptance of the status quo in lieu of realistic alternatives," another excerpt published by the Times read.
The report overshadowed a visit to Kabul by Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar designed to repair ties and raise the issue with Karzai of peace talks with the Taliban.
"I can disregard this as a potentially strategic leak. ... This is old wine in an even older bottle," she told reporters, repeating Pakistan's denials it backs militant groups.
Khar, whose visit was the first high-level meeting in months between officials from both countries, added the neighbours should stop blaming each other for strained cross-border ties.
The Times said the "highly classified" report was put together by the U.S. military at Bagram air base, near Kabul, for top NATO officers last month. It was based on interrogations of more than 4,000 Taliban and al Qaeda detainees, it said.
Kirby declined to comment on the specifics of the report, but did acknowledge "long-standing concerns about the ties between elements of the ISI and the Taliban. This is not a new notion."
Large swathes of Afghanistan have been handed back to Afghan security forces, with the last foreign combat troops due to leave by the end of 2014. While some foreign soldiers will stay, likely to conduct counterterrorism operations, many Afghans doubt their security forces can stave off insurgents.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu, speaking in Brussels, played down the implications and said a surge offensive had seen the Taliban suffer "tremendous setbacks."
"We know that they have lost a lot of ground and a lot of leaders, and we also know that support for the Taliban is at an all-time low," she said.
As of January 1, 889 U.S. soldiers had been killed in a conflict that was launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks and has drained almost half a trillion dollars from U.S. coffers.
New accusations of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban could further strain ties between Western powers and Islamabad.
Critics say Pakistan uses militants as proxies to counter the growing influence of India in Afghanistan. The belief that Pakistan supports the insurgents is widely held in Afghanistan.
"It would be a mistake now for the international community to leave Afghanistan, and drop us in a dark ocean," said Afghan telecommunications worker Farid Ahmad Totakhil.
Pakistan is reviewing ties with the United States, which have suffered a series of setbacks since a U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year humiliated Pakistan's powerful generals.
A November 26 cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers deepened the crisis, prompting Pakistan to close supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is seen as critical to U.S. efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. Yet Islamabad has resisted U.S. pressure to go after insurgent groups like the Taliban, and argues Washington's approach overlooks complex realities on the ground.
Pakistan says the United States should attempt to bring all militant groups into a peace process and fears a 2014 combat troop exit could be hasty, plunging the region into the kind of chaos seen after the Soviet exit in 1989.
"They don't need any backing," Tariq Azim, of the Pakistani Senate's Defence Committee, told Reuters, referring to the Taliban. "Everybody knows that after 10 years, they (NATO) have not been able to control a single province in Afghanistan because of the wrong policies they have been following."
The Taliban announced this month it would open a political office in Qatar to support possible reconciliation talks. There has been talk of efforts to hold separate talks in Saudi Arabia.
U.S. lawmakers also pressed the Pentagon on Wednesday to step up measures to ensure Western soldiers are not attacked by Afghan forces or employees of security firms working with NATO.
France said it would withdraw its troops completely by the end of 2013 after four of its soldiers were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier, the latest such "insider" attack.
The U.S. Defense Department said that over 40 similar attacks on foreign personnel had taken place since mid-2007, some of them by people working with private security contractors.
"We ... owe it to our military personnel to do everything we can to reduce this sort of risk," said Representative Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Pentagon officials said NATO took extensive steps to vet Afghans working with foreign troops and was exploring ways to prevent future attacks.
(Additional reporting by Dan Magnowski, Rob Taylor and Amie Ferris-Rotman in KABUL, David Brunnstrom in BRUSSELS, Qasim Nauman in ISLAMABAD, Missy Ryan in WASHINGTON; Writing by Michael Georgy and Rob Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel and Peter Cooney)