KABUL — Afghanistan’s security forces are experiencing “shockingly high” casualties and conflict has displaced record numbers of civilians, a U.S. government watchdog said in a report Sunday on the grim challenge facing the country as it confronts the Taliban and other insurgencies with drastically reduced support from the United States and other NATO partners.
In its quarterly report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) urged the Trump administration — which is reviewing U.S. policy toward Afghanistan at a time of sustained Taliban aggression and diminished American assistance — to take a hard look at its programs and priorities and to focus aid more narrowly.
“Security is the most obvious and urgent challenge” to rebuilding the country after 16 years of war, the report said. It noted that since 2002, 61 percent of the $71 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid has gone to train, equip and support the 300,000-strong Afghan defense forces.
Nevertheless, the SIGAR report said, those forces continue to be hampered by internal problems — such as poor leadership and corruption — as well as by an agile and determined foe that is making it difficult for them to control territory. It noted that more than twice as many Afghan soldiers and police personnel were killed in 2016 as the 2,400 U.S. troops lost since 2001.
In an interview here Sunday, Inspector General John F. Sopko noted that senior U.S. military officials, including Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, have described the conflict as being at a stalemate and have suggested that several thousand more U.S. troops are needed to tip the balance. The current troop level is 8,400.
“If there is a stalemate, the question is why and how it can be improved,” Sopko said. “The why is corruption, the why is poor leadership. . . . If leadership is poor, the people below don’t care, and they wonder why they have to die.”
The report said the Afghan armed forces are also plagued by illiteracy, an attrition rate of nearly 35 percent and overreliance on highly trained special forces for routine missions. A previous report by Sopko’s office described military officers reselling supplies and food intended for combat troops. Such problems, the new report said, are “corrosive” and can undercut civilian progress in health care, rule of law and efforts to counter the soaring drug trade.
A recent example of the deadly cost of these weaknesses was the Taliban attack on April 21 that killed at least 140 soldiers on a large Afghan army base in northern Balkh province. It was the deadliest single insurgent attack of the war, and some of the contributing factors were the same systemic flaws mentioned in the report.
One factor was poor leadership based on nepotism. Sopko said the commander of the Balkh base was known as well connected but ineffective. Another was shoddy vetting of military personnel; several of the people suspected of carrying out or helping in the attack were military recruits or former base workers. Sopko said a new system of biometric identification had been planned for all soldiers but was taking far too long to implement. And, ultimately, Afghan special forces had to come in and quash the assault though the base trains thousands of soldiers.
The report, titled “Reprioritizing Afghanistan Reconstruction,” also described a panoply of problems across Afghan society and government that hinder national reconstruction efforts, even as the international community has pledged substantial new aid through 2020 and wants as much of that aid to be spent and managed by Afghan agencies as possible.
“Opium production stands at near record levels,” the report noted. “Illiteracy and poverty remain widespread. Corruption reaches into every aspect of national life. The rule of law has limited reach. Multiple obstacles deter investors. . . . The ranks of the jobless grow as the economy stagnates.”
Sopko said that the United States has a cooperative and “willing partner” in the government of President Ashraf Ghani and that senior Afghan officials “really care about improving their country,” but he said they have been frustrated by old systems of ethnic patronage and palm-greasing that discourage building institutions based on professionalism and merit.
He said that the government has made noticeable progress on some U.S.-backed programs, such as a new anti-corruption task force, but that even this effort has taken only “baby steps” and needs to prosecute some “mafia big fish” to bring real change and build public confidence.
In its recommendations, the report said the White House and Congress need to be prepared to perform “triage” on less successful projects, impose more rigorous standards of management and accountability for all programs, prevent aid funds from inadvertently reaching insurgents, establish a new strategy to combat opium production and drug trafficking, and decide whether reductions made in U.S. military and civilian oversight need to be reversed.