Trump’s Pivot on Afghanistan Follows Bleak Battlefield Reports

President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., on Aug. 21. President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., on Aug. 21. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

In the run-up to President Trump’s Monday night announcement of a stepped-up military effort to stabilize Afghanistan came several inspector general reports that paint a bleak picture of stalled progress by U.S. and Afghan warfighters in defeating the Taliban.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ comment to Congress in June that “we are not winning in Afghanistan” figures predominantly in the ninth quarterly report to Congress on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, prepared jointly by the inspectors general for the Defense Department (Glenn Fine, acting), State Department (Steve Linick) and U.S. Agency for International Development (Ann Calvaresi Barr).

“The conflict in Afghanistan intensified this quarter as the Taliban mounted widespread attacks against Afghan military facilities,” said the report covering April-June 2017. “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Khorasan, the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, continued to mount suicide attacks and replenish its forces, despite aggressive U.S. and Afghan counterterrorism operations that killed hundreds of its fighters and destroyed its facilities.”

Defense officials “reported no change in the percentage of the population (66 percent) under Afghan government control or influence” and “mixed progress” in capacity-building efforts aimed at making the Afghan Army and national police forces better able to provide security on their own.

The number of security incidents in the first three months of 2017 was the highest recorded since 2001, by a United Nations count. Near-record numbers of civilians were reported killed and injured during the first six months of 2017.

The report, parts of which remain classified, examined the performance of the U.S. military and allies, while inventorying contractors and related investigations and audits. It notes, for example, that U.S. air support to Afghan security forces “returned to a level of intensity not seen since 2012, when more than 60,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in the country. U.S. aircraft dropped over 1,600 munitions during the first 6 months of 2017, compared to 545 and 298 during similar periods in 2016 and 2015, respectively,” it said.

In April, the surging Taliban launched the single deadliest attack on Afghan security forces since 2001, when 10 insurgents stormed the largest Afghan National Army base in northern Afghanistan, killing 144 Afghans and wounding 65. That prompted the resignation of the Afghan Defense minister and national army chief of staff, as President Ashraf Ghani replaced four of six corps commanders.

An equally bleak evaluation came on Aug. 1 with a 36th quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Between March 1 and May 31, by a U.N. count, security incidents rose by 21 percent from the previous quarter, to 6,252. From Jan. 1- May 8, 2,531 Afghan service members died in action while 4,238 were wounded. As of May 15, “the struggle between the Afghan government and insurgents remains a stalemate, with the number of districts and the portion of the population under Afghan government and insurgent control unchanged since last quarter’s February 15 assessment,” said the report supervised by IG John Sopko.

Among the challenges for the multi-agency U.S. and allied effort: More than 12,000 personnel had been identified as “unaccounted for” in the Afghan Human Resources Information Management System as of May 11, “some of whom could be ghosts,” the report said, referring to inflated payrolls. In the first six months of this year, “Afghanistan’s domestic revenues declined nearly 25 percent year-on-year and covered about 40 percent of total government expenditures,” it added. Meanwhile, the estimated value of the troublesome opiate crops produced in Afghanistan nearly doubled to $3.02 billion in 2016 from $1.56 billion in 2015.

Much of the country remains dangerous for travel. “SIGAR is concerned that U.S. officials, whether at State, USAID, Justice, Treasury, Commerce, or elsewhere, cannot oversee the billions of dollars the United States is dedicating to Afghan reconstruction if, for the most part, they cannot leave the U.S. embassy compound,” Sopko’s team wrote. “Hunkering down behind blast walls damages not only the U.S. civilian mission but also handicaps the U.S. military mission.”

On a more granular level, SIGAR on Tuesday released a negative report on a USAID-funded effort to streamline the Afghan government’s collection of customs duties using electronic payments. That tool is considered vital to the shaky government’s long-term functionality, and its potential for stemming corruption could “double the customs revenue remitted to the Afghan government.”

Since 2009, USAID has spent some $160 million on the Afghan Trade and Revenue Project, most recently using the contractor Chemonics. USAID set a goal of collecting 75 percent of all customs duties electronically by November 2017. “However, our review found that by the end of December 2016, less than 1 percent (.59 percent) of all custom duty collections were being collected electronically,” SIGAR said.

“Afghan government officials we spoke to at several border crossing points and inland customs depots across Afghanistan stated that the e-payment process is inefficient for traders accustomed to the favored expediency of the cash-based system,” auditors found.

Both USAID and the contractor revised their targets, but “as of December 2016, there was little evidence to show that the project would come anywhere close to achieving the 75 percent target,” the report said. USAID and Chemonics have still “not altered project targets to account for the reality of the situation, and instead continue to invest in an endeavor that appears to have no chance of achieving its intended outcome.”

USAID area Mission Director Herbert Smith responded to a draft of the report by highlighting the challenges it encountered implementing the e-payment system, “including the need for Da Afghanistan Bank and the Afghanistan Customs Department to work together and the willingness of traders to use the system.” He noted that the implementation of the e-payment system was only one component of the ATAR program. But USAID agreed to hold the Chemonics firm accountable to the terms of its contracts, pending a “root-cause analysis” set for completion by Aug. 31.

Correction: This article has been updated to fix the spelling of USAID Inspector General Ann Calvaresi Barr's name

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