Afghan Troops Are Shorthanded as U.S. Pursues Peace Agreement

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(Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan’s army remains seriously shorthanded, a Pentagon watchdog found, as the Trump administration tries to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban enemies of the government in Kabul.

The Afghan army, air force and national police were almost 79,535 people short of their target of 352,000 personnel in the quarter ending in May, according to a report issued late Wednesday by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

The shortfall may be worse, the watchdog office indicated: It continues to investigate evidence that payrolls are inflated by “ghost” police who have resigned, been fired or died, with their salaries diverted and “shared among conspirators.”

John Sopko, the inspector general, said this week that the Afghan military’s challenges won’t evaporate if the U.S. achieves its goal of a peace accord with the Taliban so that American and allied forces can withdraw.

“If we sign peace, all of a sudden you think the narcotics problem disappears, the corruption problem disappears, the economic problem in Afghanistan disappears, the security problem disappears? No,” Sopko said in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Taliban Escalation

The Taliban have escalated attacks as the group seeks leverage in the peace talks with the U.S.

There were 6,445 enemy initiated attacks from March 1 to May 31, representing a 9% increase from the preceding three months but a 10% decline from the same period last year, the SIGAR report found. About 43% of the attacks were effective and resulted in Afghan military, coalition or civilian casualties, the report said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghan reconciliation, is seeking an agreement providing for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces if the Taliban provide assurances that terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda aren’t permitted to stage attacks from Afghan territory. Such a deal could come by early September.

The Taliban, ousted when U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, have refused so far to hold direct talks with the Afghan government. The Trump administration has said that’s a requirement before any deal is made final.

Trump’s Expectations

There’s “no deadline” for withdrawal from Afghanistan, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told reporters Tuesday, amending a comment the previous day in which he agreed with a questioner that President Donald Trump expects to see U.S. forces coming home before the 2020 election.

“The president has been very direct about his expectations that we will reduce our operational footprint on the ground in Afghanistan just as quickly as we can get there, consistent with his other mission set, which is to ensure that we have an adequate risk reduction plan for making sure that there is not terror that’s conducted from Afghanistan as well,” Pompeo said en route to a regional conference in Bangkok.

Sopko said in his remarks this week that the “poor Afghans deserve” a peace agreement but “you still are going to need a security force because the Taliban aren’t monolithic, as we know.”

“And you got ISIS, and you got unruly warlords and gangs and other threats,” he said. “You need a functioning police and a functioning military.”

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