Pentagon & Congress

U.S. watchdog offers bleak statistics for Afghan progress

KABUL, Afghanistan — In his first report to the new Trump administration, a U.S. watchdog that monitors billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan issued a bleak progress report, saying the Afghan government controls barely half the country, its security forces numbers are on the decline and drug production is on the rise, while eradication is down.

The one bright spot, says the report, is a noticeable drop in corruption when procuring goods and services. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has launched a country wide anti-corruption campaign since taking power in 2014 elections, which ended in controversy and the formation of a so-called Unity Government. In this government Ghani is president and his presidential election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is chief executive.

In his 269-page report released Wednesday, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), noted that this latest quarterly report is the first since President Donald Trump took office Jan. 20. He said it was a good opportunity for the new administration to reflect on the $117 billion Washington has invested in Afghanistan since 2002.

The Taliban were ousted in December 2001 by the U.S.-led coalition after they refused to hand over al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.

In just the last three months, Sopko's office conducted an investigation that resulted in a $99 million single-source contract being canceled, it flagged a large hotel/apartment construction project that had been abandoned after receiving $85 million in loans from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government institution, and revealed that Afghan contractors working on U.S.-funded projects were not being paid.

SIGAR was set up in 2008 following widespread reports that hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayers' dollars was being lost to waste, corruption and mismanagement by both Afghan and U.S. contractors.

After 15 years and billions of dollars "reconstruction remains tenuous and incomplete," Sopko said in his report.

"The Afghan security forces need continued donor support, plus mentoring and limited tactical support from the U.S. military, to block insurgent advances," he also said.

Afghanistan is the largest and longest operation in NATO's 68-year history, yet 15 years on the SIGAR report said the Afghan National Security Force numbers are down and insurgents control or influence more area than ever before. Citing an Asia Foundation survey, the report also says most Afghans say their country is moving in the wrong direction. According to the United Nations, more than half a million people fled their homes because of conflict last year, the highest number since record keeping began in 2008.

Last week, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry spokesman said insurgents launched 19,000 attacks in the last 10 months compared to about 700 counter-insurgency operations carried out by Afghan Security Forces in the same time.

At the time Dawlat Waziri, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said attacks against security forces were up significantly, although he didn't have comparative figures.

But on Sunday, Waziri rejected SIGAR's claim that only 57.2 per cent of Afghanistan's 407 districts were under government control or influence as of Nov. 15, 2016. Citing U.S. Forces Afghanistan, SIGAR said that figure represents a loss of territory for the government that previously controlled 63.4 percent of its country.

"The Afghan government has control of all 34 provinces of Afghanistan," said Waziri in response to the report, which was distributed to the media earlier but embargoed until Wednesday morning. Waziri said only eight districts were controlled by Taliban insurgents.

Meanwhile, drug production, which soared after the collapse of the Taliban, who had banned it during the last years of their rule, has continued to proliferate, according to the report.

Afghan opium production rose 43 percent in 2016 over 2015 levels, the report found. It's estimated that in 2016 Afghan farmers produced about 4,800 tons of opium from the poppy plant. Opium is used to make heroin. The increase comes as the United Nations reports a drastic 91 percent drop in poppy eradication last year over 2015. The report said only 355 hectares (877 acres) of poppies were destroyed last year, the lowest in 10 years.

Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.

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