Insider Attacks, Opium and Drought: Afghanistan Gets Even Worse

(Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan’s dire situation 17 years after U.S. intervention is getting even worse, with government control of territory continuing to slide, narcotics output rising and a worsening drought displacing more people than the armed conflict, according to a Pentagon watchdog.

President Ashraf Ghani’s government controlled or influenced about 55.5 percent of Afghan districts as of July, the least since November 2015, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said late Wednesday in its latest quarterly report. And after $8.9 billion in U.S. counternarcotics appropriations, poppy production surged in 2017 and is now four times higher than in 2002, the year after American forces arrived.

“Afghanistan’s narcotics industry helps finance the insurgency, supports criminal networks, fosters public corruption, and undermines the Afghan state,” said John Sopko, whose office is known as SIGAR. Looking over the broader situation facing the country, his report added that “the last few months saw several discouraging developments.”

While the report covered the period through Sept. 30, it acknowledged more recent grim setbacks, including an attack on an election-security meeting targeting the top U.S. commander in the country and key police and intelligence officials in Kandahar province. The U.S. commander, General Scott Miller, escaped unharmed, but the province’s intelligence chief and police chief were both killed.

With Afghan forces increasingly relied on to provide security, and U.S. troops in more of a support role, such insider attacks on Afghan troops rose to 56 this year through Aug. 26, up from 44 in the same period a year earlier.

Even as government control of territory slipped, Sopko’s report found that the strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces decreased by 8,827 personnel in the third quarter from the same period last year. Afghan forces are about 40,000 personnel below their target strength of 352,000, SIGAR said.

Causes for the attrition include personnel being killed in action, going absent without leave or declining to reenlist, SIGAR said, citing the Defense Department.

During a trip to Afghanistan in July, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo insisted that Trump’s strategy to fight the Taliban was working. Trump acquiesced in August of last year to a Pentagon request to send thousands of additional troops to the country, while U.S. commanders were given more authority to strike the Taliban as well as Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorists.

Water Shortages

Adding to doubts about Afghanistan’s outlook, a drought has displaced thousands of people this year, according to the United Nations. It said 2.2 million people were affected by the drought in May.

The water shortage threatens wheat production in a country where agriculture employs about 40 percent of the population. The United States Agency for International Development expects a wheat-harvest deficit of 2.5 million metric tons for 2018, against a need of 6 million metric tons, according to the SIGAR report.

In addition, the fight against corruption appears to be at a stalemate. Afghan officials aren’t coordinating with the U.S. while accusations of corruption against high level officials are overlooked, with a focus on lower-level cases, according to the report.

Amid the challenges destabilizing the country, the U.S. is seeking to foster peace talks with the Taliban to end what has become the longest war in American history. Taliban leaders met in October with a U.S. delegation headed by the new special envoy on Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad. The talks took place in Doha, Qatar, where the militant group has a political office.

General Miller, the U.S. commander, said in an interview with NBC News that the conflict “is not going to be won militarily.”

“My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily,” Miller told NBC. “So if you realize you can’t win militarily at some point, fighting is just -- people start asking why.”

The Taliban has said they were ready to talk to the U.S. to end the war, but not with the Afghan government as they deem it illegitimate. A lasting agreement would let Trump draw down U.S. troops, which first arrived in the country soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who earlier this year called Afghanistan a “tough fight,” said Tuesday that any U.S. role in the country after a peace deal would be “conditions-based” and in conjunction with the Afghan government.

The U.S. strategy “is working from our perspective,” he said, “but what’s heartbreakingly difficult to accept is that progress and violence can be going on at the same time.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.