US report: Taliban's firm grip in Afghanistan persists

Amid rumors that President Trump might withdraw troops from Afghanistan, a new report suggests that Afghan forces have ceased to gain ground on the Taliban, despite a surge in air support from the United States. 

Rahmat Gul/AP/File
An Afghan Security forces member walks next to a suicide-bomb crater in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 29, 2018. A new US report says Afghan security forces have struggled to retake land from the Taliban, despite a surge in American bombing.

As the Trump administration pushes for peace in Afghanistan, a new United States watchdog report says Afghan security forces are shrinking, gaps in security are growing, and the Taliban are largely holding their own despite a surge in American bombing.

These trends reflect what US military officials call a stalemated war, more than 17 years after US forces invaded following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Gauges of battlefield momentum have changed little over the past year, according to a watchdog agency known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. In a report to Congress on Thursday, it said the Afghan government controls or influences 54 percent of districts, down from 56 percent a year earlier, and the Taliban's share slipped from 14 percent to 12 percent. Contested territory increased from 30 percent to 34 percent.

The Pentagon insists that military pressure on the Taliban is mounting. Last year the US vastly increased its use of air power in support of Afghan forces. According to US Central Command data, US aircraft dropped 6,823 bombs in the first 11 months of 2018. That compares with 4,361 bombs dropped in all of 2017.

Even so, the Afghan government has been unable to expand its control of the country, and analysts say an outright military victory by either side is beyond reach.

Amid reports that President Trump is considering withdrawing as many as half of the 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been publicly emphasizing the sacrifices his troops are making in fighting the Taliban. Mr. Ghani was reported to have said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend that 45,000 Afghan security personnel had died since September 2014. President Barack Obama ended the US ground combat role against the Taliban at the end of 2014 while focusing more on training and advising Afghan forces.

The heavy losses suffered by Afghan forces partly explain why Kabul is unable to build its Army and police to their authorized strength of a combined 352,000. Thursday's inspector general report said the Army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016. The cost of arming, training, paying, and sustaining those forces falls largely to the US government at more than $4 billion a year.

Although US commanders have long argued they are making progress toward enabling the Afghan government to defend its own people, Mr. Trump has said many times that he doubts the wisdom of continuing the war. His Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in recent days the US and the Taliban agreed in principle to a framework for peace, although important elements are yet to be settled, including buy-in by the Afghan government.

Taliban officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the two sides had reached an understanding about the withdrawal of US and NATO troops and that the militant group had made assurances that Afghan soil would not be used again for attacks against the United States or others.

Afghan officials hope Trump will explain his intentions in further detail during his State of the Union address next week.

In a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in 2019 if US-led coalition support remains at current levels.

"Afghan forces generally have secured cities and other government strongholds, but the Taliban has increased large-scale attacks, and Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls, and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory," his report said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press with contributions from Deb Riechmann in Washington and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad.

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