The United States military has said in a secret report that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control over Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw from the country, Britain's Times of London newspaper said on Wednesday.
Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban, the newspaper said, quoting the report. Once ISAF (NATO-led forces) is no longer a factor, Taliban consider their victory inevitable, it quoted the report.
The Times said the highly classified report was put together by the U.S. military at Bagram air base in Afghanistan for top NATO officers last month. The BBC also carried a report on the leaked document.
Large swathes of Afghanistan have already been handed back to Afghan security forces, with the last foreign combat troops due to leave by the end of 2014.
The document cited by the Times and the BBC also stated that Pakistan's powerful security agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was assisting the Taliban in directing attacks against foreign forces -- a charge denied by Islamabad.
Washington and its allies have long complained that the Taliban and other Islamist and criminal groups operate out of safe havens in tribal areas in Pakistan's west and northwest.
The document's findings were based on interrogations of more than 4,000 Taliban and al Qaeda detainees, the Times said, adding however it identified only few individual insurgents.
A State Department spokesman and Britain's Foreign Office both declined comment on the report. NATO and Pakistani officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Despite the presence of about 100,000 foreign troops, violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, according to the United Nations.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says levels of violence are falling.
Citing the same report, the BBC reported on its website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16821218) that Pakistan and the ISI knew the locations of senior Taliban leaders and supported the expulsion of foreign invaders from Afghanistan.
Senior Taliban leaders meet regularly with ISI personnel, who advise on strategy and relay any pertinent concerns of the government of Pakistan, it said.
Pentagon officials said they had not seen the reports and could not comment on their specifics.
But Pentagon spokesman George Little said: We have long been concerned about ties between elements of the ISI and some extremist networks.
Little said U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also been clear that he believes that the safe havens in Pakistan remain a serious problem and need to be addressed by Pakistani authorities.
The Times said in its report the document suggested the Taliban were gaining in popularity partly because the austere Islamist movement was becoming more tolerant.
It quoted the report: It remains to be seen whether a revitalised, more progressive Taliban will endure if they continue to gain power and popularity. Regardless, at least within the Taliban, the refurbished image is already having a positive effect on morale.
(Reporting by Stephen Mangan; addtional reporting by Missy Ryan in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani)