Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says


Attacks carried out by the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan surged by 50 percent in the third quarter of 2020, according to a Pentagon watchdog report released Thursday.

“According to United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), average daily enemy-initiated attacks this quarter were 50 percent higher compared to last quarter,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote in its latest quarterly report, covering July through September.

“Overall enemy-initiated attacks were also ‘above seasonal norms,’ ” the report added.

The exact number of so-called enemy-initiated attacks has been restricted from public release since earlier this year, with officials telling SIGAR for its May report that releasing the data could complicate ongoing talks with the Taliban.

In February, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban that calls for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by this coming May if the insurgents uphold counterterrorism commitments such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.

Since the deal was signed, the Taliban has stepped up attacks against Afghan forces. Such attacks do not violate the deal, but U.S. officials have repeatedly condemned the level of violence as unacceptably high and threatening to the peace process.

The ongoing violence in Afghanistan was thrown into stark relief earlier this week when gunmen stormed Kabul University, killing dozens. The Afghan branch of ISIS has taken credit for the attack, and the Taliban has denied responsibility.

The Taliban is “calibrating its use of violence to harass and undermine” Afghan forces and the Afghan government, but keeping the violence to “a level it perceives is within the bounds of the agreement, probably to encourage a U.S. troop withdrawal and set favorable conditions for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan,” the Pentagon is quoted as saying in the SIGAR report.

While the U.S.-Taliban deal does not bar attacks on Afghan forces, it does prohibit attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. The New York Times reported in August that the Taliban was suspected of firing rockets at two U.S. military bases that month and in July, but that there were no U.S. casualties.

SIGAR asked the U.S. military whether there have been any confirmed or suspected attacks on U.S. personnel or facilities since Afghan peace talks began and whether any attacks violated the U.S.-Taliban deal, but the answer was classified, according to the report.

Amid the violence, U.S. forces continue to draw down, with the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan expected to hit 4,500 this month. National security adviser Robert O’Brien has said the number will further drop to 2,500 early next year, though he has publicly sparred with military officials over the plans and President Trump has been pushing for an even quicker withdrawal.

Department of Defense (DOD) officials told SIGAR on Oct. 18 that the department “does not have orders to change our current drawdown plan, which directs a reduction in forces to between 4,000 and 5,000 by the end of November 2020,” according to the report.

Plans for further drawdowns could also shift if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency, which he has multiple paths to achieve as votes continue to be counted after Tuesday’s election. Biden has said he would withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but leave a small contingent of special forces to conduct counterterrorism operations.

“Further troop reductions in the current security environment, when the timeline for a concluded peace settlement is also unknown, could impact continued U.S. support to and development of Afghanistan’s security institutions,” SIGAR warned in its report. “Particularly important will be how DOD continues to provide adequate oversight of the billions of dollars per year it executes to pay, equip, train, and sustain [Afghan forces] in the years ahead, and whether it can continue contract oversight and an effective level of train, advise, and assist support for the force.”

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