The Taliban will rapidly reclaim ground in Afghanistan as US forces and their allies, including Britain, lose recent gains after a planned draw-down of Western troops next year, according to a grim American intelligence analysis.
The US national intelligence estimate (NIE) predicts that the advances made since the 2010 "troop surge" will be rolled back by 2017, even if Washington and Kabul reach an agreement to keep some American forces in the country.
The classified report by 16 US intelligence agencies paints an even darker outlook if the two countries fail to complete tense negotiations for a security pact to maintain a limited international military contingent and guarantee billions of dollars in aid after next year.
The sombre conclusions were revealed by The Washington Post, which cited senior US officials who have read the document or been briefed on its conclusions.
The NIE is fuelling a strong debate within the administration and Congress by strengthening the resolve of those calling for a quick exit.
Hamid Karzai, the outgoing Afghan president, has so far balked at signing a deal to permit any US forces to stay beyond 2014.
But the US has said that the billions of dollars in aid it and its allies have pledged depend on at least 8,000 US troops remaining to conduct counter-terrorism and training missions.
Some administration officials believe that the report is unduly pessimistic as it does not reflect improvements in the strength and quality of Afghan security forces.
The White House declined to discuss the NIE. But a senior administration official told The Washington Post: "One of the intelligence community's principal duties is to warn about potential upsides and downsides.
"We will be weighing (all) inputs as we look at the consequential decisions ahead of us, including making a decision on whether to leave troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014."
US military commanders have in the past submitted rebuttal letters to highlight their disagreements with NIEs.
But General Joseph Dunford, the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, chose not to submit a rebuttal to the latest NIE, two officials told the newspaper. (© Daily Telegraph, London)