Afghan Enemy Attacks Hit Record Amid Election, U.S. Peace Talks

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(Bloomberg) -- Enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan reached their highest fourth-quarter number since a Pentagon watchdog began collecting data a decade ago on what has become America’s longest war and one of its costliest.

There were 8,204 attacks in the final three months of 2019, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or Sigar, said in a report published late Thursday. That was up from 6,974 in the same period a year earlier and followed a surge of attacks in September, the month of the Afghan presidential election. That coincided with the most enemy-initiated attacks in any month since June 2012.

Widespread violence in Afghanistan has persisted despite more than 18 years of U.S. military presence in the nation since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban. The insurgents control or contest more territory than at any time since they were forced from power. President Donald Trump has pressed to reach a peace deal with the group that would allow the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops from a conflict that has cost it about $900 billion.

“When looking at 2019 as a whole, enemy attacks appeared to decline early in the year while peace talks were ongoing,” according to the report. “But a turbulent last six months resulted in increases in overall enemy attacks.”

U.S. and Taliban negotiators have restarted peace talks in Qatar after they broke down in September, when Trump abruptly announced he was canceling plans to host a summit with Taliban leaders at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. In a trip to Afghanistan in November, Trump said he favored reducing troop levels to about 8,600 from 12,000.

Downed Plane

As the U.S. and Taliban struggle to keep negotiations alive, violence continues to undermine those efforts and security in the country. The Taliban attacked a key military base in Dasht-e-Archi district of northern Kunduz province this week, killing 13 security forces and wounding 12 others.

The militant group also claimed it downed a “special American aircraft” on an intelligence mission, while the U.S. military said Monday there was no indication the plane was hit by hostile fire. U.S. forces recovered the remains of two service members at the site of Jan. 27 crash of the Bombardier E-11A aircraft crash in Ghazni Province, the Defense Department said.

Special Inspector General John Sopko told Congress this month that the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan rated worse than a “D-minus,” hobbled by a lack of American understanding of the “historical, social, legal and political traditions” of the country.

Despite an increase in enemy-initiated attacks against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces, civilian casualties fell at the end of year. They dropped in the fourth quarter to 1,878 after spiking in the third quarter to 4,029, according to the Sigar report.

Total civilian casualties in 2019 were slightly lower at 9,189 than the previous year’s 9,214. In both years, Kabul and Nangarhar Provinces experienced the most civilian casualties, which were attributed primarily to the Taliban and other insurgent groups, the watchdog said. In a positive development, the report said about 300 Islamic State fighters in Nangarhar surrendered.

Yet even as civilian casualties leveled off, there doesn’t appear to be much of a respite for the Afghan population. One-third, or 11.3 million people, could face food insecurity in early 2020, a result of the lingering impacts of a severe drought in 2018, high unemployment and food prices.

The humanitarian outlook in Afghanistan “is as bleak as ever,” Sigar said, citing Christos Stylianides, the European Union’s commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management.

Sopko’s Critique

The Taliban remain at their strongest since being overthrown in 2001, and attacks by insurgents make it impossible for Afghan forces to secure much of the country, factors that are contributing to a dire humanitarian outlook, Sopko’s report found.

Corruption has continued to plague Afghanistan. In January, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan last among the 31 Asia and Pacific countries it surveyed.

Corruption “not only saps the money we give to the Afghan government,” Sopko said during his congressional testimony this month. “It also is used as a recruiting tool by the Taliban because they can point to the corrupt officers, they can point to the corrupt warlords who are getting all of the government contracts and they say, ‘See, that’s what the U.S. government does.’”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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