U.S. Hiding in Afghanistan as Trump Struggles to Define Vision, Watchdog Says

  • Afghanistan security worsening at rapid pace as deaths rise
  • Government income fell 25 percent as opiate cultivation climbs

Will America Ever Leave Afghanistan?

U.S. engagement in Afghanistan has deteriorated to a new low, with personnel hunkered down behind blast walls as President Donald Trump struggles to define a vision for the war-torn country almost 16 years after American forces first arrived.

While Defense Secretary James Mattis told lawmakers in June that the U.S. is “not winning in Afghanistan right now” -- despite spending about $714 billion since 2001 -- the latest report by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction shows how bad the situation has become.

Security incidents, including terrorist attacks by both Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, jumped 21 percent from March through May compared with the previous quarter, and civilian deaths are hovering near a record. Meanwhile, the amount of territory controlled by President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s government was down to about 60 percent, six percentage points less than a year earlier.

The worsening security means that personnel at the U.S. embassy in Kabul won’t venture out of the secured international zone and have been reluctant to let the inspector general’s staff travel around the country to gather information, according to the report released late Monday.

‘Hunkering Down’

“Hunkering down behind blast walls damages not only the U.S. civilian mission but also handicaps the U.S. military mission,” according to the report. The inspector general “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,” the inspector general found.

Trump voiced his frustrations with the Afghan situation on July 18, saying during a luncheon at the White House, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”

Trump is now the third U.S. president struggling to stabilize Afghanistan since George W. Bush sent special forces to help oust the Taliban government for harboring Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. In July of last year, the Obama administration announced that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan into this year rather than cutting the force to 5,500 as originally planned.

Pentagon officials have been discussing options to increase troops levels in the country, but a report Sunday by the Wall Street Journal suggested the White House may consider reducing forces instead. In June, Trump gave Mattis authority to determine troop levels in the country, essentially lifting force limits imposed during the Obama administration.

Captain Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, declined to comment on the Journal article. “This is a White House-led effort to articulate the strategy, which is more than just military,” he said. “It’s a process that continues.”

Lawmakers Impatient

The president’s inaction is trying the patience of lawmakers, with the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee saying he’ll offer a plan when the Senate takes up the annual defense policy bill in September.

“More than six months after President Trump’s inauguration, there still is no strategy for success in Afghanistan,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a statement. “Eight years of a ‘don’t lose’ strategy has cost us lives and treasure in Afghanistan.”

Mattis has said “he wants any decisions we make about military operations” in Afghanistan, including tactics and troop numbers, “to be derived from a clear understanding of the president’s guidance on the broader strategy,” according to Davis.

As the strategy winds it way through the White House and Pentagon, however, the outlook is only becoming more grim for Ghani’s government and the Afghan people.

Among the incidents chronicled in the latest period are an April 21 attack on a military camp near Mazar-e-Sharif, where Taliban fighters killed at least 250 Afghan soldiers. Less than a month later, a truck bomb exploded in the center of Kabul’s diplomatic quarter during rush hour, killing more than 150 people and injuring several hundred more. The explosion heavily damaged several embassies and injured staff from the German, Japanese and Pakistani embassies.

Civilian deaths rose 2 percent to 1,662 for the first six months according to the United Nations, with 26,500 civilians killed and almost 49,000 injured since the conflict began.

Poppy Cultivation

On the economic front, the report provided little cause for optimism. Afghanistan’s government revenue declined almost 25 percent in the first six months, leaving a budget gap of $1.1 billion. Donor contributions have narrowed the shortfall, but a $458 million hole remains.

In addition to the violence and government financing gaps, efforts to counter illicit poppy cultivation also appear to be failing. Despite the U.S. providing $8.6 billion for counter-narcotic efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, the area under cultivation increased 10 percent to 201,000 hectares (497,000 acres) in 2016 compared with the previous year.

The estimated value of opiates produced in Afghanistan increased to $3 billion in 2016 from $1.6 billion in 2015, the report found. The value of opiates is valued at more than two-thirds of the country’s entire legal agricultural sector.

On the political front, the inspector general’s report said dysfunction in the “National Unity” government is hurting the war against Taliban, a view shared by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to Congress in May. 

“Kabul’s political dysfunction and ineffectiveness will almost certainly be the greatest vulnerability to stability in 2017,” Coats said May 11. Thanks to the country’s “dire economic situation,” the political and security situation will “deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners.”

— With assistance by Anthony Capaccio

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.