During an 18-month period when the United States largely halted its withdrawal from its longest-ever war, the Afghan Taliban gained territory, according to a new report from the command.
The US special inspector general for reconstruction (Sigar) found that the Nato-backed Afghan government is in control of 65.6% of districts in the country – a drop from the 70.5% it held in January 2016.
The expansion of the Taliban helps explain why the current US commander, army general John Nicholson, pressed Barack Obama to delay his long-scheduled troop drawdown.
Obama announced earlier this month that he will leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through 2016, a reversal of his earlier plan to drop to 5,500 by January 2017 – which was itself a reversal of his announcement in spring 2014 to drop to 5,500 in 2015.
The delays in withdrawing troops were predicated on preserving a military stalemate in Afghanistan – but the latest figures released on Friday indicate that keeping US troops in the country has not prevented the Taliban from gaining ground.
Earlier this week, the United Nations found . While the UN held the Taliban and its allies responsible for 60% of those deaths, it warned that casualties attributed to forces aligned with the US-backed Ghani government are up 47% over the past year.
Nicholson has won greater leeway from Obama in attacking the Taliban, particularly using airstrikes. Previously, Obama had permitted US forces to continue counter-terrorism raids against al-Qaida or allied forces, but left fighting the Taliban to the Afghan armed forces. That formal prohibition was porous: came as US special forces joined in a battle against the Taliban.
Sherjan Ahmadzai, director for the Center for Afghanistan Studies University of Nebraska-Omaha, said it was no surprise that the Afghan forces had lost territory to the Taliban.
“Afghan forces are not in the position of strength the coalition forces enjoyed before the withdrawal,” Ahmadzai said, adding that the lack of an effective air force and a summertime Taliban offensive to gain opium-producing regions had also contributed to the loss of territorial control.
The United States has spent a total of $114.9bn on reconstruction and relief in Afghanistan since 2002, the report found. Almost $70bn of that, or 60%, was spent on building up the Afghan defense forces, yet problems with the force persist.
In addition to losing territory to the Taliban, the Afghan army has come under pressure from Islamic State in Khorasan province and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the report said. Despite help from coalition airstrikes, the Afghan forces have also suffered from high attrition rates, including a high number of casualties, which results in the force losing a third of its troops annually.
James Dobbins, former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and currently a senior fellow at Rand Corporation, said the US is spending less on the Afghan forces each year.
“If you compare what we’re spending this year compared to what we had five years ago, it’s an order of magnitude smaller,” Dobbins said, adding that the cost of having US soldiers there is much larger.
Afghan forces are also suffering more as they continue to fight, unlike Iraqi forces, which received substantial US government support but capitulated when confronted by Isis in 2014, Dobbins added.
Since 1 January 2015, Nato has been conducting its Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, involving training, advisory, assistance, and counter-terror missions. According to the report, this mission has resulted in 21 US military deaths up until 1 July 2016, and 16 contractor, US civilian or Department of Defense deaths.
The report also highlighted the status of refugees fleeing the instability. Citing data from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the report found the number of Afghan refugees wishing to return to Afghanistan had dropped dramatically from 33,555 in the first five months of 2015 to 6,298 in the same period in 2016.