U.S. Watchdog Cites ‘Disturbing Increase’ in Afghan Attacks

(Bloomberg) -- Afghan forces are continuing to lose ground in the country’s 17-year war as targeted terror attacks and poppy cultivation rise even as Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s government takes tentative steps toward peace talks with the Taliban, according to a Pentagon watchdog.

The latest quarterly report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction comes just three weeks after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo signaled optimism during a surprise visit to the country, saying that President Donald Trump’s strategy to fight the Taliban is working.

The report, however, cited troubling trends, noting that the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan has observed a “disturbing increase” in attacks by Islamic State-Khorasan, the local affiliate of the terror group. And it countered Pompeo’s comment that Taliban momentum is slowing, saying the results by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are mixed after years of shrinking government control over the country.

“The ANDSF failed to improve its control over Afghanistan’s districts, population and territory since last quarter,” according to the report published just before midnight on Monday. “Instead, district and territorial control became slightly more contested between the government and the insurgency.”

Poppy Cultivation

While security incidents across the country decreased, with enemy-initiated violence 10 to 12 percentage points below the five-year average, targeted assassinations and suicide attacks have increased considerably, according to the report.

Sometimes the attacks aren’t against the government, but between Taliban and Islamic State forces. A battle between the two sides earlier this month in the northern province of Jawzjan left at least 28 members of IS dead, including two top commanders.

Amid the violence, poppy cultivation levels in Afghanistan also reached a record, with the total area of cultivation expanding by 127,000 hectares. The U.S. has provided over $8.8 billion for counternarcotics efforts aimed at stopping poppy production, a base ingredient for heroin. Since November 2017, U.S. airstrikes have destroyed 154 Taliban targets that include narcotics production, storage and trafficking locations, according to the report.

Nevertheless, Ghani said in a televised speech earlier this month that peace is “now more possible” than at any time in the past. A rare but short-lived ceasefire last month between the government and the Taliban signaled the group also seeks peace, he said. Islamic State-Khorasan was not included in the ceasefire.

Taliban in the Streets

During the ceasefire last month, Taliban fighters appeared in the streets of some cities, greeting and hugging locals and raising hopes that the 17-year war could come to an end.

During his visit in June, Pompeo promised that the U.S. would support Afghanistan’s peace talks with the Taliban. A lasting agreement would allow Trump to consider drawing down U.S. troops, which first arrived in the country soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Since then, the U.S. has appropriated about $126 billion for Afghanistan relief and reconstruction, including $78 billion for security, according to the report.

Last week, the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, Alice Wells, led a delegation that met with Taliban officials in Doha to discuss ways to lay the groundwork for peace talks, the Wall Street Journal reported. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said July 28 via a message that he would be looking into the meeting and sharing details later.

The unstable security situation across much of the country comes as Afghanistan prepares for parliamentary and district council elections on Oct. 20. The country will hold its fourth presidential elections since 2001 on April 20 next year, according to Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, a spokesman for the Independent Elections Commission.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.