By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghan forces will require significant support from the U.S. military and its allies after the NATO combat mission ends next year, according to a new Pentagon report implicitly warning against a "zero option" of total withdrawal.
A senior U.S. defense official said on Tuesday the Pentagon had not developed a plan for total pullout from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but that failure to reach a deal with Kabul on legal guarantees for U.S. troops could force such a scenario.
U.S. officials have previously said the United States could potentially pull out all of its troops from Afghanistan next year amid tensions between President Barack Obama's administration and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
But the twice-yearly report released on Tuesday stressed that Afghan forces would be fundamentally unprepared to go it alone on January 1, 2015.
Peter Lavoy, an assistant secretary of defense, said foreign assistance would be key for the basic operations of the Afghan military, from ensuring Afghan soldiers get paid and fed to developing contracts so that they have fuel for their vehicles.
"These are the kind of functional skills and capabilities that Afghans are still developing today," Lavoy told a news conference detailing the report, adding the Pentagon has not developed a "zero option" for consideration.
"And we envision that it will take a period of time before they can adequately fully have sovereign ownership of all those skill sets, including well beyond the 2014 date."
Still, Lavoy acknowledged that if the United States and Afghanistan cannot reach an agreement on a bilateral security pact giving legal guarantees for U.S. troops to stay, the United States would be forced to withdraw.
"And so then you end up with zero," he said.
The Pentagon report was released the same day that NATO's new top military commander said the alliance hopes to deliver a detailed operations plan for its smaller post-2014 mission in Afghanistan - including the number of troops involved - by late this year.
That NATO troop figure, and whether it matches up with the perceived needs of the Afghan forces, could determine whether the Afghans can preserve the hard-won gains made against a still resilient Taliban insurgency during the costly, unpopular conflict that began in 2001.
The report does not speculate on the security outlook after 2014 without knowing the NATO figure. "Assessing whether the gains to date will be sustainable will be difficult to do until the exact size and structure of the post-2014 U.S. and NATO presence is determined," is said.
The sweeping, 181-page report outlined a dizzying mix of risks to Afghan stability, including pervasive corruption, a still-resilient Taliban insurgency, rocky relations with Pakistan and the perils of a NATO drawdown that will likely sap Afghan economic growth.
The Taliban lost territorial control in 2012 and through the first quarter of 2013, the report said, and was "now less capable, less popular and less of an existential threat to the Afghan government than in 2011."
Still, it cautioned that the Taliban was resilient and adaptive and benefited from sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. Pakistan, the report said, was still adopting a posture of "acceptance and occasional support" to insurgents who attack U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has denied U.S. accusations of supporting insurgents.
Some of the most withering criticism in the report was leveled at the government in Afghanistan, particularly about questions of corruption.
"Unqualified and corrupt political officials in parts of the central government undermine government efficacy and credibility, threatening the long-term stability of Afghanistan," it said.
The report added that the Afghan government's counter-corruption efforts "have shown no substantial progress" beyond acknowledging the existence of large-scale corruption.
"In some areas, local populations see Taliban governance as less corrupt and abusive" than the Afghan state, the report said.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham)