WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence operatives in Afghanistan believe that the Taliban is stronger now than it was before President Obama deployed 30,000 more troops in 2010, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Friday after returning from a three-day visit.
“My biggest take-away from the trip was the huge difference between what the military believes the state of affairs is and what our intelligence community believes the state of affairs is,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). “Folks on the intelligence side … believe the Taliban is stronger today than it was even a couple of years ago.”
The Taliban’s goal is to avoid major battles with superior U.S. forces until those forces withdraw, Rogers said. He said worsening corruption among Afghan government officials is driving new recruits to the Taliban, which he said now has a shadow governor in every Afghan province.
“We’ve seen a lot more violence in the north that we haven’t seen before,” Rogers said. “There’s been an increase in political assassinations.”
The pessimistic intelligence assessments, Rogers said, contrast with sentiments expressed by military commanders, a disconnect that also occurred at times during the war in Iraq.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and was also on the trip, was less pessimistic about the strength of the Taliban, saying she saw evidence of significant military and intelligence successes.
The Taliban earns as much as $120 million a year from the country’s heroin trade, Feinstein said. “My big concern is that the Taliban ends up as a narco-cartel, candidly,” she said.
She acknowledged “a difference of opinion” between the military and the intelligence community over the progress of the war.
Feinstein and Rogers said intelligence and military analysts agree that the Taliban continues to enjoy havens in parts of Pakistan, where extremist networks and factories producing bomb ingredients are beyond the reach of U.S. ground forces.
On Tuesday, President Obama made a surprise overnight visit to Kabul, the Afghan capital, to sign a strategic agreement with President Hamid Karzai, setting the stage for withdrawal of most remaining U.S. troops by the end of 2014. The Obama administration has argued that the Taliban has suffered broad losses and that the Afghan government must take over its own security by that time.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in a speech to U.S. troops at Ft. Benning, Ga., that the Taliban has “been weakened, their momentum has been broken.”
-- Ken Dilanian
Caption: President Obama greets troops at Bagram air base in Afghanistan during his visit this week. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press.