By Will Racke
The Taliban today controls or contests more territory in Afghanistan than it did at the beginning of James Mattis’ tenure as Pentagon chief, according to information released Tuesday by U.S. defense officials.
When Mattis took over as defense secretary in January 2017, the outlook for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan was bleak. The U.S. backed central government was shot through with corruption, opium production was spiking, and Afghan security forces had crippling recruitment and desertion problems.
Even more worrisome was the strength of the Taliban insurgency. Afghan forces controlled about 57 percent of the country’s 407 districts, but about 33 percent were “contested” and another 10 percent were completely under Taliban control, according to a Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) January 2017 report.
The situation has gotten worse 12 months since, at least as far as Taliban strength is concerned. About 56 percent of Afghanistan’s districts were under government control or influence, 30 percent were contested, and 14 percent were under Taliban control as of October 2017, defense officials said.
Those figures were not included in latest SIGAR report to Congress, released late Monday. In a cover letter to the report, SIGAR said it had been told by the Pentagon to withhold statistics on district control, even though the information is not classified and had been released before.
“This development is troubling for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this is the first time SIGAR has been specifically instructed not to release information marked ‘unclassified’ to the American taxpayer,” SIGAR chief John Sopko wrote.
Operation Resolute Support, the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan, released the data on Tuesday after criticism from the national security press. Defense officials blamed the omission on “human error” related to confusion over the classification system utilized by U.S. forces.
“The classification system, because it incorporates both a NATO and U.S. nomenclature, can be challenging, and a mistake was made,” Navy Capt. Tom Gresback said, according to the Washington Examiner. “The data is not classified and there was no intent to withhold it unnecessarily.”
The SIGAR report comes after a bloody week in Afghanistan and fresh doubts about the ability of U.S.-backed Afghan troops to contain the Taliban insurgency. In the last 10 days, more than 130 people have been killed in four attacks by Taliban and ISIS militants, three of which occurred in the heart of the Afghan capital.
President Donald Trump has committed to adding thousands of U.S. troops to bolster Afghan security forces in the fight against the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents. The strategy involves deploying combat advisory teams at the front lines of the fighting, with the aim of battling the Taliban to the point where it has no choice but to negotiate a peace settlement.
Trump dismissed the idea of negotiating with the Taliban while they were still attacking civilian targets on Monday, saying it might be “a long time” before peace talks can begin. Trump’s remarks did not indicate a broader change in strategy for the military mission in Afghanistan, Deputy Secretary of State said Monday.
“That doesn’t change the long-range strategy of our policy which it to be firm militarily to convince the Taliban, or significant elements of the Taliban, that there isn’t a military solution to the security situation here, that ultimately peace and security of Afghanistan will be determined by peace talks,” he told reporters during a trip to Kabul, according to Reuters.