The top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan says Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants are using crowded Afghan prisons as a "sanctuary" to recruit and plot attacks.
In a confidential report obtained by The Washington Post General Stanley McChrstal also warned US President Barack Obama that the war against the Taliban could be lost within a year without more troops.
"There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan," said the confidential report.
In his stark assessment of the war, which included a plea for more US troops, General Stanley McChrystal proposes an overhaul of how the US military and the Kabul government detain insurgents.
He calls for separating extremists from more moderate inmates and creating a US government task force that would "work toward the long-term goal of getting the US out of the detention business," while helping Kabul improve its prisons.
Among the measures suggested in the report, McChrystal said a US team would seek to move the prison system "from retribution to rehabilitation" and help reintegrate inmates back into Afghan society.
The commander of US and NATO troops painted an alarming portrait of the country's prisons, in which Taliban and Al-Qaeda agents operate virtually unfettered.
"The US came to Afghanistan vowing to deny these same enemies safe haven in 2001," the general wrote.
"They have gone from inaccessible mountain hideouts to recruiting and indoctrinating (while) hiding in the open, in the ACS (Afghan Corrections System)," he wrote.
The report warns that "insurgents use the ACS as a sanctuary and base to conduct lethal operations" against the central government and coalition forces.
Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents comprise more than 2,500 of the country's 14,500 inmates, and their leaders "patiently coordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military," he said.
Several state prisons "are firmly under the control of the Taliban" and if inmates stage no violent attacks inside a prison, the Afghan authorities see it as a qualified success, according to the report.
Petty criminals 'being indoctrinated'
"These detainees are currently radicalizing non-insurgent inmates and worsening an already over-crowded prison system," the general said.
"Hardened, committed Islamists are indiscriminately mixed with petty criminals and sex offenders, and they are using the opportunity to radicalize and indoctrinate them."
At the US-run prison at the Bagram air base north of Kabul, hundreds of detainees held without charges for years are also vulnerable to recruitment by committed extremists, the general said.
The legal uncertainty faced by the detainees "allows the enemy to radicalize them far beyond their pre-capture orientation."
"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," he wrote.
War will be lost without more troops
General McCrystal also warned that the war against the Taliban could be lost within a year without more troops.
In a grim assessment of the eight-year conflict he said a new strategy was needed, and warned that "inadequate resources will likely result in failure".
The report was presented to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on August 30 and is being reviewed by the White House, with McChrystal widely expected to make a formal request to increase the 62,000-strong US force.
McChrystal, who assumed command of international troops in Afghanistan in June, said the campaign in Afghanistan "has been historically under-resourced and remains so today."
The 66-page document -- a declassified version of which is published on the Washington Post website describes a strengthening, intelligent Taliban insurgency.
McChrystal was highly critical of a corrupt Afghan government and an ineffective strategy pursued by international forces that so far has failed to win over ordinary Afghans.
"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and (the International Security Assistance Force's) own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government," he wrote.
International forces "have operated in a manner that distances us -- physically and psychologically -- from the people we seek to protect.... The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves."
The general said the Afghans' own forces must be boosted over the next 12-18 months to maintain international support.
He called for the Afghan army to be increased from 134,000 troops to 240,000, and the police force to be raised to 160,000 officers from 84,000.