No ground gained in Afghanistan, despite surge in U.S. bombing

As the Trump administration pushes for peace in Afghanistan, a new U.S. watchdog report says Afghan security forces are shrinking, gaps in security are growing, and the Taliban are largely holding their own despite a surge in American bombing.

Afghan government controls 54% of country, virtually unchanged from last year: U.S. watchdog reports

Afghan Security personnel arrive at the site of deadly attack on the interior ministry on April 30, 2018, in Kabul. The Afghan government and the Taliban are hoping for clarity from Trump's upcoming State of the Union after mixed signals about U.S. intentions in the region in recent weeks. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

As the Trump administration pushes for peace in Afghanistan, a new U.S. watchdog report says Afghan security forces are shrinking, gaps in security are growing, and the Taliban are largely holding their own despite a surge in American bombing.

These trends reflect what U.S. military officials call a stalemated war, more than 17 years after U.S. forces invaded following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Gauges of battlefield momentum have changed little over the past year, according to a watchdog agency known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In a report to Congress on Thursday, it said the Afghan government controls or influences 54 per cent of districts, down from 56 per cent a year earlier, and the Taliban's share slipped from 14 per cent to 12 per cent. Contested territory increased from 30 per cent to 34 per cent.

The Pentagon insists that military pressure on the Taliban is mounting. Last year the U.S. vastly increased its use of airpower in support of Afghan forces. According to U.S. Central Command data, U.S. aircraft dropped 6,823 bombs in the first 11 months of 2018. That compares with 4,361 bombs dropped in all of 2017.

Even so, the Afghan government has been unable to expand its control of the country, and analysts say an outright military victory by either side is beyond reach.

Heavy toll on Afghan security

Amid reports that U.S. President Donald Trump is considering withdrawing as many as half of the 14,000 American forces in Afghanistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been publicly emphasizing the sacrifices his troops are making in fighting the Taliban.

Ghani was reported to have said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend that 45,000 Afghan security personnel have died since September 2014, an average of 850 a month. Former U.S. president Barack Obama ended the U.S. ground combat role against the Taliban at the end of 2014 while focusing more on training and advising Afghan forces.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani claims his country has lost tens of thousands of security forces personnel in the past four years. (Fabrice Coffrini/Reuters)

The heavy losses suffered by Afghan forces partly explain why Kabul is unable to build its army and police to their authorized strength of a combined 352,000. Thursday's inspector general report said the army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016. The cost of arming, training, paying and sustaining those forces falls largely to the U.S. government at more than $4 billion a year.

Although U.S. commanders have long argued they are making progress toward enabling the Afghan government to defend its own people, Trump has said many times that he doubts the wisdom of continuing the war. His Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in recent days the U.S. and the Taliban agreed in principle to a framework for peace, although important elements are yet to be settled, including buy-in by the Afghan government.

Taliban officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the two sides had reached an understanding about the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops and that the militant group had made assurances that Afghan soil would not be used again for attacks against the United States or others.

In addition to the U.S. troops that are part of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and a separate American counter-terrorism effort largely directed at groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries also participate in Resolute Support.

Afghan officials hope Trump will explain U.S. intentions in further detail during his State of the Union address next week.

Trump has previously directed his ire at the SIGAR reports, arguing they shouldn't be made public.

"We're fighting wars, and they're doing reports and releasing it to the public," Trump said earlier this month at the White House. "Now the public means the enemy. The enemy reads those reports. They study every line of it. Those reports should be private reports."

In a report to the Senate's intelligence committee on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in 2019 if U.S.-led coalition support remains at current levels.

"Afghan forces generally have secured cities and other government strongholds, but the Taliban has increased large-scale attacks, and Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls, and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory," his report said.

Talks between Washington and the Taliban are due to resume in Qatar on Feb. 25.

With files from CBC News and Reuters