A new American intelligence assessment on Afghanistan predicts that the gains the US and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops.
The National Intelligence Estimate, which includes input from the country's 16 intelligence agencies, predicts the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history, according to officials who have read the classified report or received briefings on its conclusions.
The grim outlook is fuelling a policy debate inside the Obama administration about the steps it should take over the next year as the US military draws down its remaining troops.
The report predicts Afghanistan would likely descend into chaos quickly if the Washington and Kabul do not sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond next year, a precondition for the delivery of billions of dollars in aid that the US and its allies have pledged to spend in Afghanistan over the coming years.
"In the absence of a continuing presence and continuing financial support", the intelligence assessment "suggests the situation would deteriorate very rapidly", said one US official familiar with the report.
That conclusion was widely shared among US officials working on Afghanistan, the official said.
Some officials have taken umbrage at the underlying pessimism in the report, arguing that it does not adequately reflect how strong Afghanistan's security forces have become.
A senior administration official said the intelligence community had long underestimated Afghanistan's security forces.
US intelligence analysts did not provide a detailed mapping of areas they believed were likely to become controlled by specific groups or warlords in coming years, another official said. But the analysts anticipated the central government in Kabul was all but certain to become increasingly irrelevant as it lost "purchase" over parts of the country.
Some have interpreted the intelligence assessment as an implicit indictment of the 2009 troop surge, which President Barack Obama authorised under heavy pressure from the US military in a bid to strengthen Afghan institutions and weaken the insurgency.
The senior administration official said the surge enabled the development of a credible and increasingly proficient Afghan army and made it unlikely that al-Qaeda could re-establish a foothold in the country where the September 11 terror attacks were plotted.
"By no means has the surge defeated the Taliban," the official said, but its stated goal was to "reverse the Taliban's momentum and give the government more of an edge. I think we achieved that."
The Obama administration has sought to get permission from Kabul to keep troops who would carry out counter-terrorism and training missions beyond next year. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States and has made demands that Washington calls unrealistic.
Karzai's intransigence has emboldened those in the administration and Congress who favour a quick drawdown. The latest intelligence assessment has provided those inclined to abandon Afghanistan with strong fodder.
Such assessments are issued periodically, normally ahead of a major policy decisions. One issued in 2008 was seen by international diplomats as having presented an "unrelentingly gloomy" picture of the state of affairs in Afghanistan, according to a US diplomatic cable that was released by WikiLeaks.
Another one in 2010, when the US troop surge was at its peak, also offered a decidedly grim assessment. US commanders have submitted rebuttal letters to note disagreements.