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Report: Taliban maintaining foothold in Afghanistan amid increasing violence

Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch last month near the site of a blast in Kabul.
Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch last month near the site of a blast in Kabul. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
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KABUL — A new report by a U.S. government watchdog paints a discouraging portrait of Afghanistan in recent months, detailing continued Taliban gains, record civilian casualties by pro-government airstrikes and insurgent attacks, a disappointing performance by U.S.-funded ­anti-corruption agencies and soaring drug production and addiction.

In a tense political season, when hopes for change have inspired millions of Afghans to vote for a new parliament and hopes for peace have spurred new efforts at dialogue with Taliban insurgents, the report released Thursday by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) casts a sobering eye on persistent setbacks in the fight against the Taliban and cumulative failures in the wars on corruption and drugs. 

The report stressed that Taliban control and influence continued to expand nationwide in recent months, while Afghan government control or influence over national territory has “reached the lowest level” since late 2015, declining slightly to 55 percent of 407 districts. It said government forces “made minimal or no progress in pressuring the Taliban” in the past three months and “failed to gain greater control or influence over districts, population and territory.”

The report also highlighted the sustained high rate of war-related deaths and injuries among both civilians and security forces: a record 2,798 civilians were killed and 5,252 injured between May and September. It also said the average monthly number of casualties among Afghan military and police forces, while not officially released, was “the greatest it has ever been” in similar periods during the conflict, probably between 30 to 40 killed per day.

The report found that during the first nine months of 2018, suicide attacks by insurgents increased dramatically, rising by 38 percent over the same period last year. Casualties caused by airstrikes by Afghan and coalition forces also climbed sharply, increasing by 46 percent to 313 deaths and 336 injuries, the report said. It noted that U.S. and coalition officials have disputed the latter set of figures, reporting that far fewer civilians were killed or injured. 

The SIGAR report also described a number of “discouraging developments” in the past several months, including a four-day Taliban siege of Ghazni city in August and the insurgents’ rejection of a second truce offered by President Ashraf Ghani the same month. Also on that list was an Oct. 18 shooting attack in Kandahar at a meeting of U.S. and regional officials that killed the regional police and intelligence chiefs. The top U.S. military commander in the country, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, was unharmed in the attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.

In an especially critical look at U.S.-funded efforts to combat narcotics, the report described a rapidly escalating problem of opium production and drug addiction that has defied years of expensive programs and investment. 

“These efforts have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $8 billion since 2002, yet Afghanistan’s opium crisis is worse than ever,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general, wrote in an introduction to the 250-page document. 

The report said that Afghan opium poppy cultivation has reached an “unprecedented high” of about 820,000 acres, and that opium accounts for 19 to 32 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and provides half a million jobs, representing “a backbone” of the Afghan economy. 

It also noted that addiction to opioids among Afghans has skyrocketed, reaching several million people. Overall, it said, the drug trade has become “an existential threat to the Afghan state” by fueling corruption and crime and by financially benefiting the insurgency. 

Despite these alarming developments and the large sums spent by U.S. agencies to combat drugs in Afghanistan since 2002, the report found that U.S. officials have played down the narcotics problem in recent years and no longer see it as a “mission objective or a priority.” The inspector general called for a “deep review” of U.S. anti-drug policies and efforts in the country.

A more surprising aspect of the SIGAR report was its sharp criticism of the Afghan attorney general’s office and its highly touted foreign-funded initiatives to combat corruption and crime in Afghan civilian government and military sectors. The report blasted the attorney general, a respected former human rights advocate, saying he has a “poor record of prosecuting powerful and influential corrupt actors” and has failed to cooperate with U.S. officials. 

The report cited criticism by the U.S. Justice Department that the Afghan attorney general’s office is “unproductive, corrupt and patronage-laden.” 

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