The Pentagon watchdog suggested Friday that top U.S. officials overstated progress late last year when they said the tide had begun to turn in favor of U.S.-backed forces in Afghanistan, months after the Trump administration unveiled its new strategy against the Taliban.
The Department of Defense Inspector General released a report Friday saying that “no significant progress” had been made in 2017 toward Afghan authorities’ stated goal of bringing 80 percent of the country’s population under government control amid a Taliban insurgency.
The report found little evidence to support comments that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., and other top U.S. officials made late last year, arguing that U.S.-backed troops had “turned the corner” and gained momentum in their fight against the Taliban. At times, top officials appeared to attribute the change to the new strategy the Trump administration announced last summer.
“Overall, based on available data, it is too soon to judge whether the new strategy has broken the stalemate in the fight against the Taliban and other extremists,” acting Inspector General Glenn A. Fine wrote in his introduction to the report. “During the quarter, there was no change in the percentage of the population or the number of districts under the control of the Afghan government, and there was no progress towards a reconciliation process with the Taliban.”
The report found “no improvement” in security conditions in Afghanistan, highlighting the U.N. characterization of the environment in December as “highly volatile.” Some 64 percent of Afghanistan’s population lives in “government controlled or influenced” areas, Nicholson said, representing little change from previous months.
Spokesmen for U.S. Central Command and the Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment on the inspector general’s report.
Despite years of promoting a U.S. withdrawal, President Trump authorized a new approach in Afghanistan last August that called for sending thousands more U.S. troops to the conflict zone in an effort to help Afghan government forces wrest more control of the country.
Friday’s report said the U.S. military had roughly 14,000 troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2017. The Obama administration said it had about 8,400 troops there in 2016.
In addition to an infusion of troops, the Trump administration also signed off on a more aggressive approach to combating insurgents, the deployment of more U.S. advisers with Afghan forces and the authority to target Taliban revenue streams such as drug trafficking. New U.S. advisory brigades are due to arrive in the country later this year.
U.S. and Afghan forces conducted strikes on narcotics laboratories in southern Afghanistan in late November, an example of the Trump administration’s strategy of going after Taliban revenue. The United States previously had conducted strikes when supporting Afghan troops or protecting its forces.
The inspector general report pointed out that U.S. forces conducted operations in 2009 that specifically targeted Taliban drug labs in an effort to reduce the group’s revenue.
Despite the U.S. strikes in November, the United Nations reported that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan set a record in 2017, the report said.