Wow, Afghanistan Is Getting a Lot Worse
More civilians and troops are dying as government funds dry up
Militant attacks are escalating. Afghan military casualties are high. Deserters number in the thousands. Kabul’s coffers are depleted. American officials are cowering in their fortified compounds.
That’s the dark picture that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — the U.S. government’s watchdog agency for the Afghanistan war — painted in its July 2017 quarterly report.
Since invading Afghanistan in late 2001 in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, the United States has spent $714 billion on military and reconstruction efforts in the country, SIGAR noted. 4,200 American servicepeople have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Most recently, U.S. Army private Hansen Kirkpatrick died in an indirect-fire attack in Helmand province on July 3, 2017.
As of May 2017, there were 8,300 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, part of a total NATO support force of around 15,000 troops.
But the heavy U.S. investment in money and lives has not resulted in anything resembling a winning strategy. “Several top U.S. security officials characterized the war in Afghanistan this quarter as a stalemate that, if left unchecked, could deteriorate further in favor of the insurgency,” SIGAR explained.
Between March 1 and May 31, 2017, the United Nations tallied 6,252 “security incidents” in Afghanistan — an increase of nearly a quarter over the previous quarter. To be fair, militants are more active during Afghanistan’s warm summer months than they are during the bitterly cold winter months, so an increase relative to the winter of 2017 is not surprising.
However, attack are also up compared to the summer of 2016, when the United Nations counted 6,122 incidents. According to the United Nations, between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2017, 3,581 Afghan civilians were hurt and 1,662 killed in combat, roughly as many as were injured or died during the same period in 2016.
The causes of the casualties have changed. 1,151 of the civilian casualties in the first half of 2017 resulted from suicide and complex attacks. That’s a 15-percent increase over 2016 — and more than in any previous six-month period since the United Nations began documenting civilian deaths and injuries in 2009.
A SIGAR investigator traveling with U.S. military personnel confirmed that anti-terrorist gratings had been falsely reported as installed at this highway culvert. A court proceeding related to the fraud was conducted in July 2017. SIGAR photo
The increase came largely from Kabul, SIGAR reported. Nineteen percent of the civilian casualties between January and June occurred in the city. One of the bloodiest terror attacks of the war
occurred in Kabul on May 31, 2017. A truck bomb exploded in the center of the city’s diplomatic quarter during rush hour, killing around 150 people and injuring hundreds.
Afghan troops are dying at a high rate, too. From Jan. 1, through May 8, 2017, 2,531 members of the Afghan armed services died in combat. Another 4,238 were wounded in action. On April 21, 2017, as many as 10 Taliban attackers reportedly wearing Afghan uniforms infiltrated the base of the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps near Mazar-e Sharif, killing up to 250 Afghan soldiers.
According to SIGAR, Afghan military casualties for the first half of 2017 “are consistent” with military casualties from the same period in 2016. As of May 2017, 12,073 Afghan military personnel were unaccounted for, SIGAR noted. Some are deserters. Others absences could reflect poor record-keeping, the watchdog group explained.
As with civilian deaths, Afghan military deaths in 2016 reached elevated levels — and stayed there. The U.S. military headquarters for Afghanistan told SIGAR that Afghan troops losses “steadily increased” after Afghan forces took the lead in security operations beginning in January 2015.
Amid heavier fighting, the Taliban and other militant groups have barely budged. The percentage of districts under government control has “stabilized” at 59.7 percent, the same as in the winter of 2017, SIGAR reported.
But the relentless insecurity has had a chilling effect on American activities in Afghanistan. SIGAR warned of U.S. officials who barely leave their compounds for fear of coming under attack. “SIGAR is concerned that U.S. officials, whether at State, USAID, Justice, Treasury, Commerce or elsewhere, cannot oversee the billions of dollars the United States is dedicating to Afghan reconstruction if, for the most part, they cannot leave the U.S. embassy compound.”
“Hunkering down behind blast walls damages not only the U.S. civilian mission but also handicaps the U.S. military mission,” SIGAR added. “In the long run, such extreme risk aversion and avoidance may even contribute to greater insecurity, since it limits U.S. diplomatic reach to the very Afghans necessary to foster stability, rule of law and economic growth, while sending an unintended but dangerous message to friend and foe alike that the terrorists should be feared and may actually be winning.”
Kabul’s finances are taking a hit, too. In the first six months of 2017, the Afghan government’s domestic revenues declined a quarter year-on-year, according to SIGAR. Meanwhile, the value of the country’s illicit opium trade — which helps to fund the Taliban and other militant groups — increased from $1.56 billion in 2015 to $3.02 billion in 2016.