Afghanistan, 17 Years Later: U.S. Progress Stalls as Taliban Gains Ground

At least 32 killed in suicide attack on Afghan protesters
AFP/NOORULLAH SHIRZADA

Nearly 17 years after the Afghanistan War began, there are few signs of progress and indications the Taliban is increasing its hold onto power in Afghanistan, despite continued U.S. support for the Afghan government.

Over the last two years, the Afghan government has lost control of ten percent of Afghanistan’s districts, according to data gathered by the government watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The Taliban, over that time, gained five percent more control of districts, and now contests five percent more districts, according to SIGAR.

The Afghan government fares slightly better in terms of control over the Afghan population, another metric commonly used to gauge progress: control of 65 percent of the population. However, that was down from 69 percent in August 2016.

Meanwhile, the Taliban gained three percent control over the population during that time. The percentage contested by the Taliban has waxed and waned over the two years but stayed roughly around 23 percent.

And some military analysts have called those numbers into question, saying they exaggerate Afghan government control.

The statistics paint an abysmal picture of progress for the Afghanistan War and the Trump administration’s current strategy, which has a goal to reach 80 percent population control in two years.

In his last brief as commander of the Afghanistan War last month, Army Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson acknowledged there has been an “impasse” in territorial or population gains. But he suggested that those were perhaps not the best metrics for progress. Rather, he suggested, progress should be measured via increasing social pressure on the Taliban to come to the negotiation table.

“We have looked at the same metrics over time. So now, as we begin to change those metrics — things like social pressure, religious pressure, reconciliation — all of these factors are part of the South Asia policy, they are things to be examined. And I think they are things contributing to the progress that we’ve seen towards reconciliation,” he said 

Pentagon officials have cited the first nationwide ceasefire this summer as evidence the pressure on the Taliban is growing to stop fighting. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has called for another ceasefire, which has so far gone unanswered 

“Even the idea a year ago, if we’d said there’ll be a cease-fire at some point in the next year, I think we would have had a very hard time convincing you of that,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at a press conference last month. “We now can point to it in the rear-view mirror. There’s another one being proffered, and I think the Taliban are increasingly finding themselves in a position of almost having to negotiate with their own subordinates, who seem to take the initiative on this sort of thing right now.”

With the prospect of political reconciliation, U.S. officials are stepping up their diplomatic efforts. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford all traveled to the region to meet with counterparts.  

The approach has been referred to as “talking and fighting” by Nicholson. While progress on peace talks is not yet apparent, the Taliban are continuing to fight, last month launching a multi-city offensive and nearly seizing the strategic city of Ghazni in southeastern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces and U.S. airpower were required to prevent a total rout of Afghan forces.  

President Trump campaigned on ending the Afghanistan War, which has cost the U.S. more than $840 billion, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman. In addition, 1,903 Americans have been killed in hostile action in the Afghanistan War, including nine so far this year.

During a review of the war, Trump’s top national security advisers persuaded him not to withdraw but add more resources.  The new strategy, announced last August, got rid of any timeline for withdrawal – a reversal of the Obama administration’s drawdown that military commanders believed incentivized the Taliban to sit and wait the U.S. out.

The strategy also saw the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to act as advisers to Afghan troops, closer to the battlefield. The Army created and deployed its first Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB. There are currently approximately 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The strategy also sought to increase pressure on Pakistan to stop funding and providing safe haven to Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and to draw upon more support from India to help develop Afghanistan’s economy. The Trump administration also gave U.S. commanders greater latitude to strike the Taliban.

Amid continued headlines of bombings and suicide attacks, Pentagon leaders argue that the mission in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent another September 11, when al Qaeda terrorists based out of Afghanistan plotted coordinated terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil in 2001.

“We are there in order to ensure that America’s security and just think back to 9/11 and this building, that America’s security is not threatened out of that – that location,” Mattis said at the press conference last month.

“That involves the Afghan people being in control of their own future. This is why we talked about an Afghan-led Afghan-owned reconciliation process. And we believe that the best way to get there is to ensure Taliban recognizes they can’t win on the battlefield, they must negotiate,” he added.

He argued that progress will take time. “We knew when we reviewed this and came up with the strategy, it would take time. We believe we can make – make progress right now. So we’re going to continue to work this. We think there are positive reasons to stick with the strategy. And we are going to drive this to a negotiated settlement, is our goal. That remains the same.”

On Tuesday, during a press conference, Mattis told reporters he saw signs during his recent trip to Afghanistan that the war was going in the right direction.

“I think there’s a fair amount of what I would call ‘non-quantifiable factors’ that are mounting in terms of going in the right direction. We’ll just have to do everything we can to protect that process with our military might, the 41 nations that have got military people there in the fight, and then continue to buttress what the diplomats are doing,” he said.

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