Afghanistan by the numbers: inside the fight over facts

The Congress-appointed government watchdog for the war in Afghanistan is expressing the concern that the American people are not getting basic facts about the conflict. Analysts agree, and say it's not going well.

Massoud Hossaini/AP
US Marines at a change-of-command ceremony Jan. 15 at Task Force Southwest field in the Shorab military camp of Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

By the most obvious metrics, the conflict in Afghanistan has seen a spike in violence during the past two weeks, already half a year after President Trump declared his “fight and win” strategy for America’s longest war.

In Kabul, Taliban insurgents laced an ambulance with explosives, killing more than 100 people at the gate of the Interior Ministry complex on Jan. 27. Taliban gunmen also besieged the Intercontinental hotel, killing more than 20 on Jan. 20.

And jihadists of the so-called Islamic State, not to be outdone, claimed responsibility for attacking the offices of Save the Children in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, killing four staff members. In Kabul, ISIS militants attacked an army post near a military academy, killing 11 on Jan. 29.

Yet even as Afghans coped with the headline-grabbing carnage, official metrics of the state of the war that once were public – insurgent control of territory, for example, and Afghan troop strength and casualty numbers – are no longer being published by the US military.

Analysts say there is no doubt that the Taliban are making steady gains across the country at the expense of embattled, US- and NATO-backed Afghan government forces. And a BBC investigation this week found that the Taliban now “threatens” 70 percent of the country, a level higher than defined by previous US military reporting.

But the lack of updated US data – noted disparagingly by the US government’s watchdog, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in its latest quarterly report on Jan. 30 – raises questions about why the figures are being hidden now.

The increased opacity comes after Mr. Trump last summer ordered several thousand more US troops to Afghanistan, raising the total level to some 14,000, on a mission to secure “victory.” Airstrikes have been ramped up to the highest level since 2010.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Afghan policemen keep watch near the site of an attack at the Marshal Fahim military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 29, 2018.

“Of course it’s a cover-up. What else can it be, when you hide figures? The thing is, it is not going well,” says Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) with decades of experience in Afghanistan.

“There are millions and millions [of dollars] thrown out for what they call ‘public diplomacy’ and ‘narrative building,’ or whatever, and no one except themselves is believing in it,” says Mr. Ruttig, speaking from Berlin.

The war is “definitely not ended or even helped toward that end, by playing these nontransparent games with the numbers and the facts,” says Ruttig. All the five trends he monitors – from security incidents and territorial control to Afghan force casualties – have grown worse since 2015, and many are at record levels.

“It means the conflict has become more violent, more brutal, and more widespread,” adds Ruttig. “It also would be good, vis-à-vis voters and taxpayers, if those figures remained in the public sphere so we can make our own assessment of how our governments are doing.”

Such an assessment has been made more difficult by an increasing scarcity of official figures about the Afghanistan war. In what it called a “development troubling for a number of reasons,” SIGAR, which was established by Congress in 2008, reported that it was the first time it had been “specifically instructed not to release information marked ‘unclassified’ to the American taxpayer.”

That unclassified data was “one of the last remaining publicly available indicators” on how the war is faring, SIGAR wrote, noting that the fact the trend was negative for years “should cause even more concern about its disappearance from public disclosure and discussion.”

'The enemy knows what the situation is'

SIGAR also noted that last fall, for the first time since 2009, the Defense Department classified details about Afghan force strength, as well as key metrics such as Afghan force attrition and capabilities.

The missing figures indicate that, as of October, Taliban territorial control of districts grew by one point over the previous quarter to 14 percent, with 30 percent “contested” with the Afghan government, according to media reports. Likewise, areas of government “control or influence” dropped one point to 56 percent.

“The enemy knows what districts they control, the enemy knows what the situation is. The Afghan military knows what the situation is,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General, told NPR this week. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people who are paying for it, and that’s the American taxpayer.”

In response to the SIGAR report, the US-led NATO operation Resolute Support in Kabul blamed “human error in labeling,” and stated that there had been no intention to hide unclassified figures.

But a Western official in Kabul with access to detailed security assessments sees it differently.

“We’ve seen more than a dozen years of self-serving games played with these metrics,” says the official, who could not be further identified.

“Ever since Trump took power, there is a real obsession with winning, and the war in Afghanistan has moved beyond that,” says the official, adding that a military solution is “a fantasy.”

“We are trying to find a way to triage the violence and achieve some modicum of stability,” the official says. “There is going to be no win here for America. Trump doesn’t get that, so you need to hide the reality of what’s going on.”

The SIGAR report coincided with publication of a months-long BBC project to map every district in the country. It found that the Taliban was “openly active” in 70 percent of Afghanistan, far more than when US and NATO combat troops left in late 2014. The BBC also found that half the population lived in areas either controlled by the Taliban or where insurgents “openly and regularly mount attacks."

How many Taliban?

Also in the past week, NBC News quoted US military sources as saying that the number of Taliban fighters stood at 60,000, fully three times the figure of 20,000 that has been reported for years. While analysts note that any estimate of “troop” strength of a guerrilla force is problematic in Afghanistan, the number suggested that US-led forces had long downplayed the scale of fight. 

Amid the recent escalation of violence in Kabul, Trump stated that the US would not hold talks with the Taliban, reversing a long-standing US policy to pressure the insurgents to the negotiating table.

“We don’t want to talk to the Taliban,” Trump said Monday, citing the Kabul atrocities. “We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.”

When rolling out his Afghanistan strategy last August, Trump indicated that the US would withhold more information from the public – and the Taliban.

“America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will,” said Trump. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

Former President Barack Obama, trying to wind up the Afghan war on his watch, first declared in 2010 that US forces would largely withdraw by 2014, prompting critics to charge that the Taliban had merely to mark their calendars, and wait.

Even if the precise details of the state of the battlefield are less clear today, the trajectory has not changed. The Taliban made significant gains, doubling the number of districts under its control from late 2015, according to SIGAR, but gains in 2017 were less dramatic.

An eroding edifice

No matter how the metrics are defined, though, the results indicate that America's longest war will become longer.

“ ‘Strategic’ often means different things to different sides,” says Ruttig of AAN. The Taliban foothold in what the US military calls “dusty districts,” for example, which are not close to main roads or cities, may not be deemed significant to Washington but are critical to the Taliban.

“I have heard [US commanders] say, ‘If the Taliban are there, then we don’t bother too much about them,’ ” says Ruttig. “That’s exactly the wrong thing, because the Taliban are quite happily living and organizing themselves in the ‘dusty districts’ – they don’t need much. And from there, they move forward.”

That means getting close to the gates of Kabul, with a strong presence in neighboring provinces like Logar and Wardak, and many others, as well as the ability to target the capital itself. The results are not like in Libya in 2011, when the frontline shifted 30 miles a day or more; instead it changes 50 yards, or 500 yards.

“It’s not like a total collapse of the Afghan security forces. It’s more like watching termites eat away at the edifice,” says the Western official in Kabul.

And despite recent reports that the number of Taliban fighters is larger than usually estimated, experts say the number of devotees to a social movement like the Taliban – whose members may be a vegetable seller on the street corner, a farmer, or even a government employee by day – may be impossible to quantify.

No census has ever been conducted in Afghanistan, and an attempt in 1979 was aborted when some census-takers were killed after knocking on doors, especially in deeply conservative Pashtun areas that have traditionally formed the backbone of Taliban support, says the official.

“So understandably the people in remote valleys were never counted, and they had lots of babies,” he says. “I think the recruiting pool for the Taliban is dramatically larger than it once was, and it is dramatically underestimated by the [Afghan] government and by the Americans.”

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