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US military stops counting how much of Afghanistan is controlled by Taliban

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The American military command in Afghanistan has halted regular assessments of how many people and districts the government and insurgents there control, it emerged on May 1, 2019 — eliminating what has long been an important public measure of progress in the war. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Written by David Zucchino

The US military command in Afghanistan has halted regular assessments of how many people and districts the government and insurgents there control, it emerged Wednesday — eliminating what has long been an important public measure of progress in the war.

The military said the assessments had “limited decision-making value” for commanders. As recently as November 2017, the previous US commander in Afghanistan had called them “the metric that’s most telling in a counterinsurgency.”

The decision to end the assessments, which have been produced in various forms since at least 2010, was published in the latest quarterly report by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

“We’re troubled by it,” the inspector general, John Sopko, said in an interview. “It’s like turning off the scoreboard at a football game and saying scoring a touchdown or field goal isn’t important.”

The military command in Afghanistan told the inspector general that the assessments, which had covered each of the country’s 407 districts, were “subjective” and were plagued by “uncertainty in the models” that produced them, the report said.

“We are focused on setting the conditions for a political settlement to safeguard our national interests,” Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement to The New York Times. The assessments “did little to serve our mission of protecting our citizens and allies,” he said.

Butler added that the information in the assessments was already provided to Sopko by intelligence agencies.

Sopko said that while US and Afghan forces, along with the Taliban, knew what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan, ending the assessments cut off vital public information. He said he and many members of Congress had access to classified information unavailable to the public.

“The only people who don’t know what’s going on and how good or bad a job we’re doing are the people paying for it — the American taxpayers,” he said.

Bill Roggio, a military commentator whose assessments have challenged the Pentagon’s analyses, said the assessment reports had recently reflected a shrinking in the territory the government controlled, particularly outside urban areas.

“The district assessments highlight failure, which is contrary to the U.S. military’s desired message of success,” Roggio said in an email. “Make no mistake, if these assessments showed the Afghan military retaking lost ground, the U.S. military would continue to publish the information.”

Sopko’s report said the assessments had limitations but were “the only unclassified metric” provided by the military “that consistently tracked changes to the security situation on the ground.”

Ending the public assessments is the latest move by the military command in Afghanistan to limit public dissemination of information about the war, which is in its 18th year. In October 2017, the military stopped reporting casualty figures for Afghan security forces at a time when casualties were approaching what the Pentagon now considers unsustainable levels.

Also classified or restricted are performance assessments for Afghan security forces and information about the operational readiness of Afghan army and police equipment; anti-corruption efforts by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior; and progress by the Afghan military on certain security-performance benchmarks.

Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said ending the assessments “means there now is no official estimate of progress in the war since late 2018.”

But he added in an email, “There is no reliable way to know who is ‘winning’ or the level of ‘stalemate.’” That included the assessments, which he said had often seemed too positive.

Gen. John Nicholson, Jr., the U.S. commander in Afghanistan until September last year, told reporters in November 2017 that district and population data were “the key factor that we’re looking at.” He said that he hoped the Afghan government could extend its control to 80% of the population by the end of 2019.

The most recent U.S. military assessment, released in January for the three-month quarter ending in October, showed that the government in Afghanistan controlled territory containing 63.5% of the country’s population. That represented a 1.7% decrease from the previous quarter.

The report said gains by the Taliban had given the insurgents control over territory that was home to 10.8% of the population. The remaining population areas were considered contested.

The Pentagon said at the time that the assessment was “not indicative of effectiveness” of U.S. military strategy, citing “uncertainty” and “subjectivity” in the data. Sopko said that had been the first time the military had criticized its own metric.

An analysis co-authored by Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, published in the Long War Journal, found that territory controlled by the Afghan government covered 48% of the population and that held by the Taliban 9%, with the rest contested.

The inspector general’s report said Afghan defense force casualties rose by 31% from December through February compared with the same period a year ago. Insurgent attacks increased by 19% from November through January compared with the quarter ending in October, the report said.

The figures reflect a higher tempo of combat operations in the conflict as both sides seek leverage in the peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban announced their spring offensive April 12.

The report said that the Afghan army and national police force were below authorized strength levels. The army was 36,000 personnel below its authorized level of 227,000, and the police force 6,600 below its authorized level of 125,000.

Both forces have been plagued by corruption, poor leadership, desertions and “ghost soldiers” — the practice by some commanders of producing inflated strength numbers and pocketing the extra salaries.

In the United States, training classes for Afghan pilots were shut down by the Pentagon after more than 40% of the student pilots went absent without leave, the report said. Sopko said Afghan military trainees have higher AWOL rates than those from any other country.

The report warned that even if a peace agreement were reached, the U.S. military and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan would continue to confront long-standing obstacles. It listed eight areas of concern, among them widespread insecurity, endemic corruption, threats to advances in women’s rights and rampant drug trafficking.

The report said the United States had spent $9 billion since 2002 to combat opium production and trafficking, a trade that helps fund the Taliban. Yet Afghanistan remains the world leader in poppy cultivation — reaching a record in 2017, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The United States has spent $780 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, with $133 billion of that amount earmarked for reconstruction, the report said.

U.S. and Taliban negotiators have reached an agreement on the framework of a deal for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that terrorists would not launch attacks from Afghan soil. But widespread combat and insurgent attacks against civilians have continued.

“The risks don’t automatically go away just because you sign a peace agreement,” Sopko said. “All we are saying to Congress and the administration is: Plan ahead.”



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