While things aren't going great in Afghanistan, there are glimmers of hope. Or at least, that's my assessment of the latest Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report, released on Tuesday.
First off, the bad news. SIGAR reports that "there were 54 districts under insurgent control (13) or influence (41), an increase of nine districts over the last six months.... 3.7 million Afghans (11.4 percent of the population) now live in districts under insurgent control or influence, a 700,000-person increase over the last six months." Note, however, that this trend may reflect an overdue understanding by allied forces that the costs of retaining some settlements currently outweigh the benefits.
Second, the report notes the United Nations claim that civilian casualties from U.S./Afghan air strikes increased by 52 percent in the first 9 months of 2017 as compared to the same period in 2016.
Third, the Afghan Air Force continues to see inadequate improvements in its aircrew numbers and aircraft availability. While many of these missions are handled by international forces, strengthening Afghan air capabilities should be a top U.S. priority.
That said, not everything is bad.
While force levels decreased quarter-on-quarter, "compared to this time last year, this quarter’s strength is an approximately 2,700-person increase for the Afghan National Police and a roughly 750-person increase for the Afghan National Army." Considering that those units are those most responsible for holding territory, this is good news. The Afghan government's provision of medical care to its military personnel is also improving.
Another positive development is the ramping up of U.S. military activity in Afghanistan: between January and September 2017, U.S. air strikes were at the highest level since 2014. If one accepts that U.S. presence in Afghanistan is crucial for our security interests, then we should also recognize the instrumental benefits the U.S. military can bring in degrading the Taliban. One of the failures of the Obama administration's strategy was its unwillingness to allow U.S. air strike controllers and special forces on the ground to support frontline Afghan military units.
Moreover, while 10 U.S. service personnel were killed in action between January and August (twice the rate during the same periods in 2016 and 2015), casualties are far lower than in every other year since 2001. Although tragic, these losses reflect President Trump's willingness to allow U.S. personnel to take greater risks; a necessary part of effective warfighting.
On the economic front, the results are also mixed. While revenues are increasing as a result of a more efficient tax collection system, SIGAR notes that "Afghanistan’s rapid population growth, estimated at 3 percent per year, is outpacing its licit economic growth... Afghanistan’s labor market is unable to absorb what the World Bank estimates are 400,000 people entering the workforce every year. Consequently, more than 23 percent of Afghanistan’s labor force was unemployed in 2016–2017, according to the most recent reporting."
Unless the international community can do more to help Afghanistan grow its economy and attract new investment, insurgents and terrorists will be the beneficiaries.
Ultimately, SIGAR's report shows that progress remains too slow in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, with the Trump administration now injecting both realism and urgency to U.S. strategy and extracting concessions from Pakistan, we have cause for optimism.