The portion of Afghanistan mainly controlled by Taliban-majority jihadists, using the country’s 407 districts as a metric, “declined for the first time since August 2016” according to the latest report authored by a top U.S. watchdog agency appointed by Congress.
While the Taliban lost control of some districts, others became more contested between the U.S.-backed government and the terrorist groups in Afghanistan, signaling “mixed” progress at best, John Sopko, the chief of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) who authored the report.
Sopko expressed optimism about the Trump Administration’s strategy to end the war in Afghanistan, saying in May that the plan needs time to take effect.
While “mixed” progress may not sound like a great accomplishment in a war that has been raging since October 2001, the Taliban has been seizing entire districts and increasing its overall territory for years, reaching unprecedented influence and power under the previous U.S. administration. Any improvement is a novelty in the eyes of an objective observer.
The overall territory controlled by Taliban terrorists, measured in square kilometers, has also decreased.
In its latest quarterly report to American lawmakers published Tuesday morning, John Sopko notes the Kabul government neither lost nor gained districts during the period (April 1 to June 30) covered by the assessment.
According to [the U.S.-NATO mission], using Afghanistan’s 407 districts as the unit of assessment, as of May 15, 2018, there were 229 districts under Afghan government control (74) or influence (155), 56.3 percent of the total number of districts. This represents no change in district control since last quarter, but it is a slight decline from the 57 percent reported in May 2017 [prior to the implementation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategey to end the war].
Sopko writes that three of the districts completely controlled by terrorists (primarily the Taliban) last quarter fell into the contested category this quarter, meaning the land is fully controlled neither by Kabul nor the terrorists:
The number of contested districts—controlled by neither the Afghan government nor the insurgency—increased by three this quarter to 122 districts, which means 30 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are now contested.
Insurgent control or influence of Afghanistan’s districts declined for the first time since August 2016: there were 56 districts under insurgent control (11) or influence (45), a decrease of three districts since last quarter. Therefore,[the U.S.-NATO mission] now assesses 13.8 percent of Afghanistan’s districts to be under insurgent control or influence, a roughly one-percentage-point increase from the same period last year.
That means the Taliban and other terrorists control/influence or contest 43.8 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, marking a slight improvement since U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his strategy to end the war in Afghanistan nearly a year ago on August 21, 2017.
The district metric of security conditions in Afghanistan covers the situation as of mid-May of this year. Overall, Sopko’s audit shows that while the districts controlled by Kabul remained the same, the terrorists lost territory to land deemed contested.
SIGAR also cites “territorial control” as a measurement of progress, noting :
[The U.S.-NATO mission] reported that the Afghan government controlled or influenced 376,685 square kilometers (58.5 percent) of Afghanistan’s total land area of roughly 643,788 square kilometers, down about one percentage point since last quarter. The insurgency controlled or influenced 124,694 square kilometers (19.4 percent) of the total land area, also down one point since last quarter. The remaining 142,409 square kilometers (22.1 percent) was contested by the government and insurgents, a nearly two percentage- point increase since last quarter.
The “territorial control” measurement echoes the district control, showing that controlled territory lost by both Kabul and the Taliban has fallen to the contested category.
Despite the decline in territorial control by terrorists, of which the Taliban is the most prominent, SIGAR notes the country remains locked in a stalemate despite President Trump intensifying U.S. military activity. Conditions are improving, if only slightly.
Trump’s strategy to end the Afghan war, unveiled in August 2017, is primarily focused on “reconciliation” between Kabul and the Taliban.
Following up on an unprecedented U.S.-backed three-day ceasefire between the Afghan forces and the Taliban in June, the Trump Administration intensified its diplomatic efforts to engage in direct peace talks with the Taliban, a move long sought by the strongest terrorists in the country.
During his June 9 visit to Kabul, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy is making “real progress.” SIGAR concedes this quarter’s assessment data “shows mixed results at best,” since “district and territorial control became slightly more contested between the government and the insurgency.”
Any objective observer of the Afghanistan war would argue that after so many years of no progress, any improvements are welcomed.
While the U.S. insisted for years that peace negotiations must be led by the government in Kabul, in recent months the Trump administration made concessions to the Taliban’s demands to negotiate directly.
Both the Taliban and many Americans expressed a desire to bring American troops home. The Taliban has intensified its fight against its Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) rivals, sometimes at the same time as major operations by Afghan security forces, although the Taliban and Afghan forces did not actually work together.
The day before SIGAR published its report, the establishment media claimed the Trump Administration is negotiating from weakness with a Taliban that keeps seizing more territory. SIGAR’s assessment shows a slightly different story.
After years of a consistent uptick in the number of districts held or influenced by the Taliban, the situation has improved, if only minimally. Since January alone, when the Taliban controlled/influenced 59 districts, the level has fallen to 57 as of mid-May.
Under the previous administration, opium cultivation, heroin production, captured territory, and Taliban manpower reached the unprecedented levels inherited by President Trump.
SIGAR also uses “population control” as a metric of security conditions, which this quarter showed no change from previous studies. Kabul controls/influences about 65 percent (21.7 million of an estimated 33.3 million total) of the population, while the predominantly Taliban terrorists control/influence 12 percent (3.9 million). The remaining 23 percent (7.7 million) of the Afghan population is considered contested.
“The goal of the Afghan government is to control or influence territory in which 80 percent of the population (26.6 million people) live by the end of 2019,” the inspector general (IG) acknowledges.