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In Afghanistan, Security Incidents And Civilian Casualties At Record Highs

An Afghan soldier walks at a checkpoint last month on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan.
Rahmat Gul
An Afghan soldier walks at a checkpoint last month on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan.

As the U.S. considers sending more troops to Afghanistan and reviews its current strategy there, a new report from a U.S. government watchdog paints a bleak picture of the country's security and corruption issues.

Congress has appropriated more than $117 billion total to Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, and 60 percent of that has gone to the support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). At the same time, Taliban militants have gained territory during this past year, and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan says the conflict is at a "stalemate."

The findings were detailed in the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR — a military agency set up by Congress that audits U.S. spending in Afghanistan.

"Security is the most obvious and urgent challenge," SIGAR says. "Security incidents throughout 2016 and continuing into the first quarter of 2017 reached their highest level since UN reporting began in 2007."

Conflict-related civilian casualties reached their highest levels since the U.N. began documenting them in 2009, the report states, with 3,498 civilians killed and 7,920 injured.

And the casualty toll within the ranks of the ANDSF "continued to be shockingly high," the report says, with 807 killed within the first six weeks of the year.

That figure does not include the massive Taliban-claimed attack at a military base in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif that killed at least 100 Afghan soldiers.

"The ANDSF faces many problems: unsustainable casualties, temporary losses of provincial and district centers, weakness in logistics and other functions, illiteracy in the ranks, often corrupt or ineffective leadership, and over-reliance on highly trained special forces for routine missions," the report says.

The report points out two other huge problems for the ANDSF – corruption and trouble holding on to members. "About 35% of the force does not reenlist each year," according to SIGAR, and last month, the Afghan Ministry of Defense said it "sacked 1,394 of its officials for corruption in the past year."

The report describes these problems as "corrosive," saying they could undercut nonmilitary goals. At the same time, it quotes U.S. Forces in the country as saying the ANDSF is "generally performing better than at this same point last year."

Another huge problem: The production of opium, a trade that supplies some 60 percent of the Taliban's funding, "stands near record levels."

Previous SIGAR reports have pointed out other major issues. For example:

  • "Nearly a half-billion dollars' worth of transport aircraft procured for the Afghans were found unfit for use and were scrapped for pennies on the pound."
  • "Some buildings were built with concrete that dissolved in rain, or with walls and roofs that could collapse, or with unsafe wiring and inadequate plumbing."
  • The Two-Way has previously reported that a recent SIGAR report found that "a hospital in Afghanistan paid for by the U.S. is poorly built, years late and might be too expensive for the Afghan government to run on its own in the long-term."
  • It's not entirely bad news — SIGAR says the country's healthcare and education sectors are improving. U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Aaron O'Connell, who edited a new book about Afghanistan, detailed the improvements to education in an NPR interview last month:

    "Under the Taliban, there was less than a million people in schools and almost zero women. Now there are between 6 and 9 million Afghans going through education, and about a third of them are women. All of this is real progress, and it's sustainable. It pays dividends in the years that follow."

    U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who visited the country last week, has said that the Trump administration is reviewing U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.

    And as it does so, SIGAR is calling for a "fresh, frank look at the reconstruction program," involving assessing which U.S.-funded programs are stronger and weaker, and preparing to cut the weaker ones. He also wants to see a U.S. counternarcotics strategy, which has been "on hold for nearly two years."

    As O'Connell put it, there is "still space to reason what the appropriate amount of blood and treasure is to spend on a mission that seems to be in stalemate at best, backsliding at worst."

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    Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.