Afghanistan Security Forces Shrinking As Insurgents Mount Devastating Urban Attacks


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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Afghanistan’s military and police forces have contracted sharply over the past year as militant groups have launched brazen attacks in urban centers across the country, the U.S. government’s Afghan war monitor stated Monday.

Hours after suicide bombers killed at least 31 people in tandem attacks in Kabul, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its quarterly progress report on the Afghan war. The report found a disappointing development in the face of escalating violence: Afghanistan’s security forces “declined sharply” from 2017 levels.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces numbered 296,409 people as of Jan. 31, according to SIGAR. The Afghan National Army was at 85.4 percent of its authorized strength, while the Afghan National Police sat at 93.4 percent of its authorized level.

“These figures represent a sharp decline in strength from the same period last year: a total of 35,999 fewer personnel in January 2018 compared to January 2017,” the report stated.

SIGAR’s findings come as Afghanistan has suffered through a series of deadly attacks against government and international targets in urban centers, particularly in the capital of Kabul.

The tenuous security situation was illustrated to horrific effect Monday, when twin suicide blasts ripped through the heart of Kabul during morning rush hour. The bombings, claimed by Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate, killed dozens of people, including nine Afghan journalists who had arrived to document the aftermath of the first blast.

Monday’s attacks followed an even deadlier attack at a government office in Kabul the week before. That bombing, which was also claimed by ISIS, killed at least 57 people as they were waiting in line to register to vote.

Such attacks have become more frequent even as the U.S. has deployed a mini-surge of troops to bolster Afghan security forces. The Pentagon has also stepped up airstrikes against Taliban and ISIS targets throughout the country, but the strikes have not prevented insurgents from attacking the heart of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

In public statements, U.S. military commanders have put a positive sheen on the war effort, saying that the Trump administration’s new Afghanistan strategy is beginning to pay dividends. Gen. John Nicholson, who leads NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, said in late 2017 that the country had “turned the corner.”

However, SIGAR’s latest report shows serious deficiencies in Afghanistan’s progress toward beating back the Taliban insurgency. About 65 percent of the population currently lives under Afghan government control, even after direct U.S. spending on Afghan security forces of $78 billion, according to SIGAR.

“The overall trend for the insurgency is rising control over the population,” the report stated.

Washington’s counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan have also largely failed despite more than $8 billion in anti-drug spending, according to SIGAR. Prior to the U.S. invasion, the Taliban had imposed a ban on poppy cultivation, but opium production has steadily increased since 2002, with a 63 percent jump in 2017 alone.

Afghanistan’s security challenges are exacerbated by its dismal economy, which is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. Billions in U.S. investment spurred a five-fold increase in per capita GDP between in the decade after the invasion, reaching a peak of $669 in 2012. But that growth has stopped and even reversed after U.S. and allied troop drawdowns in 2014, according to the SIGAR report.

The U.S. has spent $126 billion in direct relief and reconstruction investment for Afghanistan since 2002. Today, the country ranks 183rd out of 190 countries in a World Bank list of worst countries in the world to do business. Less than a third of Afghans are connected to a power grid, SIGAR stated.

The report also includes the latest U.S. and NATO troop levels. The U.S. has about 15,500 troops in Afghanistan, about half — 7,800 — assigned to Resolute Support.

That operation, a three-year-old train, advise and assist mission, includes 7,500 troops from NATO allies and some non-NATO partner nations, bringing the total to about 15,300, according to the report.

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