WASHINGTON (AFP) - After 12 long years of war in Afghanistan the best US intelligence can say is that a resilient Taliban is “diminished in some areas,” spy agencies said Tuesday in a notably pessimistic report.
The agencies warned that the Afghan economy is headed for a downturn when Western aid declines after most NATO troops leave next year, while battlefield progress is tentative and fragile in areas due to be handed to Afghan forces.
“We assess that the Taliban-led insurgency has diminished in some areas of Afghanistan but remains resilient and capable of challenging US and international goals,” according to the report.
The assessment was presented by National Intelligence Director James Clapper at a Senate hearing Tuesday.
According to the document, the Taliban’s leadership continues to shelter in cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan, “which allows them to provide strategic guidance to the insurgency without fear for their safety.” Progress in security was “especially fragile” in areas where large numbers of US-led forces were deployed as part of a troop surge in 2010. Those areas are now being handed over to Afghan government army and police.
The intelligence assessment contrasted with upbeat statements often put out by the Pentagon and its field commanders, which have touted major progress and painted the Taliban as severely damaged and divided.
The report to Congress said Afghan security forces had proven capable of safeguarding major cities and key roads near “government-controlled areas.”
But the Afghan air force, which is trying to build up a fleet of helicopters and small aircraft, has made little headway.
The report played down Al-Qaeda’s influence, saying the group had only limited reach and that it was mainly seeking propaganda victories rather than having a genuine impact on the battlefield.
Afghanistan’s economy, which has grown steadily in recent years, is expected to slow after 2014, the report said, when international funds will begin tapering off after NATO forces pull out.
“Kabul has little hope of offsetting the coming drop in Western aid and military spending, which have fuelled growth in the construction and services sectors,” it said.
Meanwhile, over 100 detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison camp have reportedly gone on hunger strike following the alleged desecration by guards of personal affects including copies of the Quran. According to reports from detainees’ attorneys, the strike is into its third week.
“My client and other men have reported that most of the detainees in Camp 6 are on strike, except for a small few who are elderly or sick,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, a New York lawyer representing Ghaleb Al-Bihani, a Yemeni detainee.
Camp 6 houses the majority of the 166 detainees still incarcerated at Guantanamo - estimated at about 130 men - who usually don’t pose any disciplinary problems or are regarded as a particular risk.
High-profile detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, are held in a different part of the camp.
Interviewed by AFP, Robert Durand, director of public affairs for the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, said nine detainees were engaged in hunger strikes, five of whom were being fed through tubes inserted into their stomachs.
However, he indicated that “refusing delivered food does not make a detainee a hunger striker, not eating does. “Detainees or an entire cell block may refuse to take any of the fresh, hot meals delivered, but we observe them eating from the ample amounts of food they have in the cell block,” he added.
According to Kebriaei, her client - on hunger strike for 30 days - has “lost over 20 pounds and has been told by medical personnel that his health is in serious danger as he is also a diabetic.”
Another lawyer, Barry Wingard, said one of his three clients, Kuwaiti Fayez Al-Kandari, lost 12 kilos in three and a half weeks. All three were on hunger strike, he added.
Twelve lawyers - including Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights - have sent a letter to the commander of Guantanamo, Rear Admiral John Smith, to denounce “a matter that appears to be rapidly deteriorating and reaching a potentially critical level.”
“We have received reports of men coughing blood, being hospitalised, losing consciousness, becoming weak and fatigued,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
“We understand that Arabic interpreters employed by the prison have been searching the men’s Qurans in ways that constitute desecration according to their religious beliefs, and that guards have been disrespectful during prayer times.”
However, Durand pointedly rejected suggestions that copies of the Quran had been mistreated.
“To be clear: there have been no incidents of desecration of the Quran by guards or translators, and nothing unusual happened during a routine search for contraband,” Durand said.
“No JTF-Guantanamo guard touches any detainee’s Quran at any time. The Quran is treated with the utmost respect.
“We take allegations of Quran desecration seriously, and we also watch for manufactured claim of Quran desecration by detainees or outsiders.”
Durand also said the number of hunger strikers was not exceptional and had been higher in the past.
The hunger strike comes after a disturbance in the camp in January, which led to a rubber bullet being fired at Guantanamo for the first time since 2006. The only person hit by the bullet escaped injury.
The detention facility at Guantanamo was opened in 2002 to house prisoners rounded up in the “War on Terror” of President George W Bush’s administration following the 9/11 attacks.