An elderly man walks past a soldier from 2nd Platoon Fox Co. of 2-506th Infantry Battalion of the 4th Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division as they conduct a patrol near their base at COP Sabari in the Sabari district of Khost province, Afghanistan. (Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

Afghanistan Government Control Slipping as Trump Seeks Path Out

(Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan’s government found its control over the country slipping further in the final months of 2018 as the Trump administration accelerated efforts to reach a deal with the Taliban that would let the U.S. begin withdrawing troops.

Afghanistan Government Control Slipping as Trump Seeks Path Out

President Ashraf Ghani’s government controlled territory that’s home to about 64 percent of the Afghan population as of Oct. 31, according to the latest assessment by a Pentagon watchdog. That was down about 2 percent from the previous quarter. Roughly 11 percent of the population live in areas under the control of Afghanistan’s insurgency, and more than a quarter are in contested regions.

Beyond the insurgency, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said that Afghan defense forces saw a decline in personnel, narcotics trafficking remains a “widespread problem,” the impact of a major drought continues and the country last year absorbed more than 700,000 “unskilled or semiskilled” young Afghan males from Iran who “could be vulnerable to recruitment into extremist groups or the illicit economy.”

The grim outlook may bolster President Donald Trump’s resolve to find a way to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after more than 17 years, in what has become America’s longest war. That will require a breakthrough brokered by his special envoy on Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been speaking separately with Taliban and Afghani officials this month in search of a solution.

“Fighting continues but the people of Afghanistan want peace in this never ending war,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “We will soon see if talks will be successful?”

Among U.S. demands is a commitment by the Taliban to prevent terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State from continuing to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.

CIA Director Gina Haspel said on Tuesday that “a very robust monitoring regime” would be necessary under a potential U.S. peace accord with the Taliban to “maintain pressure on the terrorist groups.”

During the period covered by the report, an unidentified suicide bomber killed at least 55 people and wounded 94 others in attacks against Sunni-Muslim clerics in November. On the positive side, attacks claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan, the group’s affiliate in the country, dropped to three during the last quarter, down from 14 from July 16 through Oct. 1., according to the inspector general.

As peace talks ramped up, so did aerial bombing. The U.S. dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018, the report said, a figure that was more than five times the total in 2016 and 56 percent higher than the total for 2017.

Doha Talks

With Afghan forces increasingly relied on to provide security, and U.S. troops in more of a support role, insider attacks on Afghan troops rose to 74 last year, up from 52 in the same period a year earlier, the report said. Enemy-initiated attacks declined 6 percent to 1,742 per month from Aug. 16 through Oct. 31.

The report was released after U.S. representatives and Taliban officials began peace talks this month in Doha, where the insurgents have a political office.

The U.S. “has insisted that any agreement involve all Afghan parties and provide that Afghanistan not serve as a base for future terror attacks,” the inspector general’s report said. “The Taliban have insisted on the withdrawal of foreign forces and so far have refused to talk directly with the Kabul government.”

Making the country’s problems even worse, Afghanistan has experienced a “major livelihood crisis” due to a prolonged drought, with an estimated 10.6 million people facing severe food shortages, according to the report. The United Nations has said the drought displaced about 260,000 people.

Opium Economy

The opium economy contracted in 2018: Because abundant supplies resulted in price reductions, income earned by farmers fell to $600 million from an estimated $1.4 billion in 2017. Citing the UN, the report said the area under opium-poppy cultivation declined by 20 percent in 2018, but that was in part due to the drought.

That made the drought more effective than the U.S.-backed counternarcotics programs, the report found.

The “analysis revealed that no counternarcotics program led to lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production,” the watchdog office said. “Eradication had no lasting impact, and was not consistently conducted in the same locations as development assistance.”

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