Watchdog: Afghan government control of districts at lowest point since 2015

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Afghan government control or influence over districts in the country is at the lowest point since a U.S. inspector general began tracking the data in 2015, the watchdog said Thursday.

In its latest quarterly report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the Afghan government controls or has influence over 55.5 percent of the country’s districts, down half a percentage point from the previous three-month period and 16 percentage points since November 2015.

{mosads}Afghan forces “made minimal or no progress in pressuring the Taliban over the quarter” and “failed to gain greater control or influence over districts, population and territory this quarter,” the report said.

The metric is one of several SIGAR used, painting a bleak picture of U.S. progress in Afghanistan as the war enters its 18th year.

U.S. officials have insisted that President Trump’s strategy, announced in August 2017, is working. They have cited signs that the Taliban is more open to negotiations to end the war, even as violence escalates. The administration’s special envoy fo Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, reportedly met with Taliban officials last month in Qatar.

Gen. Scott Miller, who took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in September, said Wednesday that he has changed the approach to fighting the Taliban to be a more “offensive mindset.”

“My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily,” he said. “So if you realize you can’t win militarily at some point, fighting is just, people start asking why. So you do not necessarily wait us out, but I think now is the time to start working through the political piece of this conflict.”

Thursday’s SIGAR report highlighted several “discouraging developments” over the past few months, including the Taliban’s rejection of a second ceasefire and its five-day siege on Ghazni. The report also cited last month’s attack in Kandahar that killed the regional police and intelligence chiefs. Miller was present at the attack, but was unharmed.

The districts that the Afghan government controls or influences represent about 65 percent of the country’s population, SIGAR said.

Insurgent control of districts also decreased over the last quarter, the inspector general said. But contested districts under neither government nor insurgent control has increased, SIGAR said.

The report pointed to a high number of casualties among Afghan forces. While the exact figures are classified, the report said casualties from May 1 to Oct. 1 are “the greatest it has ever been during like periods.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday that Afghan forces suffered 1,000 casualties in August and September.

The inspector general expressed concern that the United States is doing little to address Afghanistan’s opium trade, which is used to fund the insurgency and is the main source of heroin in Europe and Canada.

“Despite its importance … counternarcotics seems to have fallen completely off the U.S. agenda,” special inspector general John Sopko wrote in the report’s introduction. “The State Department’s new ‘Integrated Country Strategy’ for Afghanistan no longer includes counternarcotics as a priority, but instead apparently subsumes the issue into general operations there.”

The U.S. military also said it has no counternarcotics mission, while the U.S. Agency for International Development said it has no plans to address poppy cultivation, he added.

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