Afghanistan re­port grim at start of Trump war strat­egy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

The Tal­iban are seiz­ing new ter­ri­tory, civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and U.S. mil­i­tary deaths are once more on the rise, and in­sider at­tacks on Amer­i­can and Afghan forces have more than dou­bled this year. That’s the grim reck­on­ing of a U.S. in­spec­tor general’s re­port re­leased last week even as the Pen­tagon and al­lied forces seek to im­ple­ment President Trump’s strat­egy for the 16-year-old con­flict.

The cen­tral govern­ment in Kabul has ceded more ter­ri­tory to the Tal­iban since the early days of the Afghanistan War, with the ter­ror­ist group now in full or par­tial con­trol of 54 of the coun­try’s dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est quar­terly sur­vey to Congress from the of­fice of the Spe­cial In­spec­tor General for Afghanistan Re­con­struc­tion (SIGAR).

The re­port con­tains sober­ing find­ings for Mr. Trump and his gen­er­als, even as the par­al­lel war against Is­lamic State and other rad­i­cal ter­ror­ist move­ments in Syria and Iraq has made sig­nif­i­cant gains this year.

The Tal­iban, which are mainly con­cen­trated within the eastern and south­ern seg­ments of the coun­try, claimed con­trol of nine dis­tricts pre­vi­ously held by govern­ment forces over the past six months. As a re­sult, more than 3.7 mil­lion Afghans, or just over 11 per­cent of the coun­try’s en­tire pop­u­la­tion, now live un­der the rad­i­cal Is­lamist move­ment’s con­trol, the SIGAR in­spec­tors found.

Those gains come de­spite a marked uptick in U.S. com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan, where Amer­i­can and al­lied forces ex­e­cuted more airstrikes against Tal­iban and Is­lamic State strongholds in the coun­try than in any year since 2014. U.S. and NATO forces car­ried out 2,400 airstrikes dur­ing an eight-month pe­riod this year against in­sur­gent tar­gets tied to the Tal­iban and forces loyal to Is­lamic State’s Afghan cell.

Amer­i­can and al­lied forces ex­e­cuted over 700 airstrikes against in­sur­gent tar­gets in Afghanistan in Septem­ber alone, in line with the hard-line wartime strat­egy for Afghanistan that Mr. Trump out­lined in Au­gust.

“Afghanistan is at a cross­roads,” said SIGAR head John F. Sopko. “President Don­ald Trump’s new strat­egy has clar­i­fied that the Tal­iban and Is­lamic StateKhorosan will not cause the United States to leave. At the same time, the strat­egy re­quires the Afghan govern­ment to set the con­di­tions that would al­low Amer­ica to stay the course.”

The down­beat SIGAR find­ings — its 37th quar­terly sur­vey of the war — come amid re­ports that the U.S. mil­i­tary has be­gun to re­strict the in­for­ma­tion flow on the war as the con­flict grinds on. The New York Times re­ported that the Pen­tagon has stopped pro­vid­ing fig­ures on the size of the Afghan se­cu­rity and po­lice forces, the state of their equip­ment and Afghan ca­su­alty fig­ures.

The Pen­tagon told the news­pa­per that the in­for­ma­tion was be­ing with­held at the re­quest of the Afghan govern­ment, but even the SIGAR re­port re­leased this week re­vealed that the Afghan army and the na­tional po­lice force had a net loss of man­power in the most re­cent re­port­ing pe­riod.

Roughly 3,900 more U.S. troops are be­ing fun­neled into Afghanistan to sup­port the 8,400 sol­diers, sailors and Marines al­ready there, with a ma­jor­ity sup­port­ing the NATO-led ad­viser mis­sion dubbed Op­er­a­tion Res­o­lute Sup­port. Other Amer­i­can troops, mostly spe­cial op­er­a­tions units, are con­duct­ing coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sions against the Tal­iban and Is­lamic State un­der a sep­a­rate mis­sion.

Mr. Trump’s blue­print aban­dons the time­line-based ap­proach to the Amer­i­can mis­sion in Afghanistan in fa­vor of a “con­di­tions based” strat­egy. Ad­min­is­tra­tion crit­ics claim the de­ci­sion will ef­fec­tively restart U.S.-led com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan, which of­fi­cially ended in late 2014 un­der President Obama and draw the U.S. into an open-ended con­flict.

While of­fi­cials in the Pen­tagon and their coun­ter­parts in the govern­ment of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani claim the shift will pro­vide much-needed re­as­sur­ance to the Afghan Se­cu­rity Forces, the sit­u­a­tion on the ground shows that fight will likely be much tougher than an­tic­i­pated.

De­spite the uptick in U.S. ac­tion, the Tal­iban con­tinue to carry out high-pro­file at­tacks, in­clud­ing some in the heart of Afghanistan’s cap­i­tal.

Roughly 90 peo­ple were killed and over 400 wounded, in­clud­ing 11 Amer­i­can con­trac­tors, in a brazen sui­cide at­tack on the Ger­man Em­bassy in Kabul in May. The at­tack was one of the worst to hit the cap­i­tal since U.S. and NATO forces ended com­bat op­er­a­tions in the coun­try in 2014.

Four peo­ple were killed and 13 wounded in a sui­cide at­tack last week in­side the “green zone” — the heav­ily for­ti­fied sec­tor in cen­tral Kabul that is home to the U.S. Em­bassy and the Afghan pres­i­den­tial palace. Mem­bers of ISIS-K car­ried out the at­tack, ac­cord­ing to re­ports from Amaq news agency, the main so­cial me­dia pro­pa­ganda net­work for Is­lamic State.

Tal­iban resur­gence

When the U.S. ended com­bat op­er­a­tions three years ago, the Ghani govern­ment held roughly 60 per­cent of the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment-led anal­y­sis, as well as re­views by pri­vate-sec­tor an­a­lysts.

But those gains ap­pear to be slip­ping from Kabul’s grasp, and the Tal­iban’s gains in the coun­try over the past six months have taken a toll on the coun­try’s mil­i­tary.

Bat­tle­field ca­su­al­ties con­tinue to in­crease among the ranks of the Afghan Na­tional De­fense and Se­cu­rity Forces, while Kabul con­tin­ues to com­bat high lev­els of at­tri­tion among the coun­try’s armed forces. The Afghan army’s ranks have dropped by 4,000 troops and the na­tional po­lice lost 5,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to SIGAR’s lat­est find­ings.

By con­trast, the Tal­iban con­tinue to show signs of strength within their tra­di­tional base in the south­ern and eastern parts of the coun­try, but also in north­ern and western Afghanistan, where they had not had sig­nif­i­cant sway in the past.

Hun­dreds of Tal­iban fighters amassed in the western Afghanistan’s Farah prov­ince dur­ing a show of force in Oc­to­ber. The gath­er­ing, posted as part of the group’s pro­pa­ganda videos, showed the Afghan ji­hadis as­sem­bling in broad day­light with­out fear of be­ing tar­geted by Afghan and coali­tion forces, ac­cord­ing to anal­y­sis by the Washington-based Foun­da­tion for the De­fense of Democ­ra­cies.

In a rare in­ter­view with The Guardian, se­nior Tal­iban com­man­der Mul­lah Ab­dul Saeed said Washington’s new ag­gres­sive ap­proach would not be enough to turn the tide against the group.

Since “150,000 Amer­i­cans couldn’t beat us,” the 4,000 troops Mr. Trump has au­tho­rized “will not change the morale of our mu­ja­hedeen,” Mul­lah Saeed said. “The Amer­i­cans were walk­ing in our vil­lages, and we pushed them out.”

He said the Tal­iban would con­sider a peace deal, but only on the con­di­tion that the “for­eign­ers must leave, and the con­sti­tu­tion must be changed to [Is­lamic] Shariah law.”

Peace talks, pos­si­bly in­clud­ing the Tal­iban, have also been a key part in the White House’s Afghanistan strat­egy. Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son said that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was open to peace talks with the Tal­iban, though not with Is­lamic State el­e­ments in Afghanistan.

“There are, we be­lieve, mod­er­ate voices among the Tal­iban, voices that do not want to con­tinue to fight for­ever. They don’t want their chil­dren to fight for­ever,” Mr. Tiller­son said.

“We are look­ing to en­gage with those voices and have them en­gage in a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process lead­ing to a peace process and their full in­volve­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the govern­ment,” the top U.S. diplo­mat added.

Afghanistan and Pak­istan agreed to hold peace talks with the Tal­iban in 2013, co­in­cid­ing with the Tal­iban’s un­prece­dented move to open a politi­cal of­fice in Doha that year. At the time, of­fi­cials in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion saw the po­ten­tial talks as a ve­hi­cle to help ac­cel­er­ate the with­drawal of U.S. forces from the coun­try by 2014. But Pak­istan’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from the talks even­tu­ally scut­tled any ef­fort to reach a deal with the ter­ror­ist group.

Stephen Dinan con­trib­uted to this re­port.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Amer­i­can and al­lied forces ex­e­cuted more airstrikes against Tal­iban and Is­lamic State strongholds in the coun­try than in any year since 2014, but the Tal­iban claimed con­trol of nine dis­tricts pre­vi­ously held by govern­ment forces over the past six months.

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