As security threats rise, Trump faces uphill battle in Afghanistan

The number of Afghans living in Taliban-controlled areas has significantly increased.

New members of the Afghan Special forces march during their graduation ceremony at the Afghan Corp, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. (credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
New members of the Afghan Special forces march during their graduation ceremony at the Afghan Corp, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. (credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN – More than three 3.7 million Afghans, about 11 percent of the population, now live in areas under the control or influence of the Taliban and other armed groups, a new report by the top U.S. watchdog in Afghanistan has found.

The situation described in the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s latest report to Congress comes as little surprise to the Afghan people, after a particularly bloody week at the tail-end of October. For the Trump administration, however, the report to Congress may serve as another jolt to their strategy for the 16-year-long war, which the president unveiled in an Aug. 22 speech.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has already announced that more than 3,000 additional U.S. forces, mostly from the 82 Airborne, will be dispatched to help the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Though foreign forces have taken on a largely training and advising role since the 2014 international troop withdrawal, Mattis did say the additional U.S. forces will also provide fire support to the ANSF.

But as the SIGAR report shows, the Taliban and more than a dozen other armed groups, including fighters claiming allegiance to the Syria and Iraq-based so-called Islamic State, have been able to target the ANSF and gain influence over increasing areas of the country. Over three days in July, the Taliban briefly captured three districts in the provinces of Paktia, Ghor, and Faryab.

According to SIGAR, 700,000 more Afghans now live in areas under the influence or control of the armed opposition when compared to the situation in the country six months prior.

Though Afghan forces are usually able to recapture the fallen districts, the continued cat-and-mouse games between the armed opposition and government forces show that the conflict shows little sign of dissipating. The armed opposition’s ability to capture territory — even if only for a few days — coupled with the Taliban’s latest tactic of directly targeting the Afghan security forces leads to renewed fears that once again, this year will not see a lull in fighting as was the case in years past.

Two Taliban-claimed attacks in the East, Ghazni, and the South, Kandahar, last month, also highlighted a disturbing new tactic by the Taliban, namely the use of explosives-laden Humvees when targeting Afghan security forces. The utilization of military hardware as part of the Taliban’s latest attacks has left many Afghans to wonder how the group could obtain such machinery.

Adding to the worry are new reports that Kabul has asked Washington not to divulge the exact number of Afghan forces, along with the rates of death and injuries among the ANSF. They have also asked for information on the state of their weaponry to be kept private. This secrecy comes despite the United States providing more than $70 billion in aid to the Afghan forces.

These attacks have once again taken a phenomenal toll on the Afghan people. According to United Nations statistics, more than 296,190 Afghans were displaced due to the conflict in the period between October 23 and 29. That figure represents an increase of 800 people from the week prior.

The Kabul government has already come under fire for their inability to provide adequate services for the “staggering” number of Afghans who have been displaced by the fighting in recent years.

The worsening security situation has also taken a toll on education in the country. According to government statistics, more than three million Afghan children are currently out of school, mostly due to security fears.

But Afghans aren’t just being displaced.

Estimates on the human toll of a series of Taliban and IS-claimed attacks between October 13 and October 20 put the death toll at more than 200 civilians and members of the ANSF.

The SIGAR report also highlights the re-emergence of another disturbing trend in the Afghan conflict, insider attacks, which see Afghan forces turning their guns on their Afghan and international comrades. According to U.S. military figures, there have been 54 such attacks in the period  from January 1 to August 15, 2017. At least 48 of those were so-called “green-on-green” attacks, where men in ANSF uniforms attacked their Afghan comrades. That’s an increase of 22 attacks when compared to the same period last quarter.

Though that stat has received little media attention, it marks the first time since 2012 that insider attacks, including attacks by Afghan forces on their international counterparts, have come to the fore. The 2012 attacks (which killed at least 45 coalition troops) led the United States to develop a handbook highlighting codes of conduct for U.S. soldiers interacting with Afghan forces.This trend is especially alarming in light of Mattis’ September announcement that more U.S. troops are actively being deployed to Afghanistan.

Residents in Kabul and the eastern province of Nangarhar speaking to ThinkProgress have said they have already seen more U.S. military vehicles on the roads of the Afghan capital and increasing operations, including aerial attacks, in areas surrounding the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Adding to fears for U.S. forces is SIGAR’s finding that from January 1 to August 23, 10 U.S. military personnel were killed in the country. Another 48 were injured. This marks an increase of seven deaths and 22 injuries since last quarter, and double the personnel killed in action over the same periods in the past two years. This figure also comes as media reports indicate that more U.S. forces are forced to head to Afghan Army bases to help in the fight against the armed opposition.

What all this adds up to is an increasing quagmire in the United States’ longest-running foreign war. Despite Trump’s assertion that U.S. “troops will fight to win,” the truth is that, as with Obama and Bush before him, the current U.S. president faces an increasingly uphill battle in the war in Afghanistan at a time when higher numbers of Afghans are paying the ultimate price in the decade-and-a-half-long conflict.