A new report by a Congressionally mandated watchdog group paints a grim picture of the progress (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan.
The national conversation has been focused on North Korea and Russia lately, while talk about counterinsurgency tactics has centered on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and northern Africa. Meanwhile, you hardly hear anything about the centerpiece of the counterinsurgency strategy that kicked off this Global War on Terror: Afghanistan.
The news out of there is grim. A report released today by a watchdog U.S. government agency details what’s been happening in Afghanistan as the United States’ attention has been fixated elsewhere: The coalition is losing Afghanistan by every metric that matters.
The report comes from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR. This is the Congressionally empowered group formed to watch over the $121 billion the U.S. has spent since 2001 to rebuild Afghanistan, and to try to ensure it isn’t lost to the widespread corruption in the country. SIGAR’s quarterly report doubles as a thermometer to gauge what’s happening in Afghanistan.
Progress is always elusive here, but this latest report paints a picture of a reconstruction gone awry. Grim news, waste, and scandal is typical of SOIGAR reports. But in the past six months, the trends are even worse than usual.
Finding: 11.4 Percent of Afghans Are Living With Insurgent Control or Influence
According to USFOR-A, 3.7 million Afghans now live in districts “under insurgent control or influence, an increase of 700,000 people over the last six months.”
Control and influence are vague terms. In Afghanistan, the distinction is often that the government controls a population center, like a government district, but cedes control to the Taliban who dominate the countryside. Such a place would be said to have a Taliban “influence.” The areas with the most districts under insurgent control or influence are the northeastern portions of Helmand and Uruzgan provinces.
“The Afghan government’s district and population control deteriorated to its lowest level since SIGAR began analyzing district-control data,” the report says. “As of August 2017, there were 54 districts under insurgent control (13) or influence (41), an increase of nine districts over the last six months.”
The weakness of the central government has always been a weak spot in the coalition strategy to rebuild Afghanistan. It’s not a surprise, given Afghanistan’s lack of infrastructure, tribal politics, and war torn history. But having the Taliban or Islamic State-Khorosan control more areas is a major backslide. Control or influence means they can generate an income, buy better weapons, and hire more gunmen. It also means they assert their own local laws on the population, creating another cycle of supporters.
Also, safe havens create the opportunity to launch attacks on government officials and civilian minorities like those praying Shia mosques. “Several high-profile attacks this quarter further damaged public confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to safeguard the population,” the SIGAR report says ominously.
There Have Been 10 U.S. Troops Killed So Far in 2017
This is the number of U.S. troops killed between January and August this year. SIGAR tallies 48 wounded. This is an increase of seven killed and 22 wounded since last quarter, and double the personnel killed in action when compared to the same periods in both 2015 and 2016.
“Before determining new U.S. troop levels for Afghanistan, the Pentagon acknowledged this quarter that there were more than 11,000 personnel already on the ground, about 3,000 more than the 8,400 figure previously reported,” the report says. “This figure was confirmed by USFOR-A, as of September 10, 2017. It does not include the 15,000 U.S. civilian contractors in Afghanistan, which would bring the current total of U.S. personnel to roughly 26,000.”
It’s going to get worse. The Pentagon is sending 3,000 reinforcements from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to serve as advisors. This will free up Special Operations forces to hunt insurgents directly. Also, the advisors are now being embedded with combat troops and have been issued new rules of engagement. “Now, wherever any individual or group is found that presents a threat to the U.S., Coalition, or Afghan forces or the mission, that enemy can be targeted,” the SIGAR report notes.
“Insider Attacks” Are Getting Worse
One of the more insidious and effective methods of insurgent attack happens when an Afghan being trained as a police officer or solider attacks U.S. or Afghan government troops. These attacks not only do immediate harm but also erode the trust between U.S. and local forces. Defense Secretary Mattis called these insider attacks “probably one of the most difficult aspects of this war.”
So it’s seriosly bad news when these incidents spike. “This quarter, there was a sharp increase in insider attacks targeting both U.S. and ANDSF personnel,” SIGAR says.
According to USFOR-A, from January 1 to August 15, 2017 there were 54 reported insider attacks. This is an increase of 26 incidents from last quarter. Most of these have been Afghan-on-Afghan attacks, with just six instances of Afghan personnel turning on coalition troops. But those took a heavy toll, with three U.S. military personnel killed and 10 wounded in those attacks 2017.
[REDACTED]: The Progress of Local Security Forces
The SIGAR reports usually contain stats tracing the progress of Afghan police and army forces. No longer. The agency relies on data from the military and Afghan government, and they wanted to keep it classified. That includes “important measures of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces performance such as casualties, personnel strength, attrition, and the operational readiness of equipment.”
Civilian Casualties From Air Strikes Are Going Up—But the Pentagon Disagrees
The SIGAR report makes it clear that most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by insurgent attacks. Even so, the political ramifications are severe when it comes to errant casualties caused by U.S. or coalition warplanes.
Mattis recently testified to Congress that in “recent months there have been fewer civilian casualties as a result of Coalition operations.” However, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported a 52 percent increase in civilian casualties from coalition and Afghan air operations in the first nine months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. (United States Forces-Afghanistan “strongly disagreed” with the assessment and methodology.)
You’re about to hear more of this argument as air strikes ramp up. “A sharp increase in American air strikes in Afghanistan in the last several months indicates U.S. forces are taking a more active combat role,” SIGAR notes. According to NATO, the United States has conducted 2,400 air strikes from January to September 2017, the most since 2014. “In line with the Administration’s strategy to prevent safe havens and proactively target extremists that threaten Afghan security, the largest number of strikes occurred in IS-K strongholds in eastern Nangarhar Province and Taliban-held areas in southern Helmand Province,” SIGAR reports.
By Joe Pappalardo
Source: Popular Mechanics