The Afghan security force effort to hold Taliban violence at bay is “working,” a Defense Department spokesman said Monday, amid a spate of insider attacks and violence linked to this weekend’s parliamentary elections.
Dozens of Afghans were either killed or injured in attacks on polling stations over the weekend, leading officials to extend or delay polling in several places. On Monday morning, one Resolute Support service member was killed and two were wounded in an apparent insider attack in Herat province, Pentagon officials said.
The attacks followed a campaign season in which 10 candidates were assassinated, and last week’s insider attack in Kandahar province that wounded an American brigadier general and killed an Afghan police chief seen as a pillar of local security.
“The ANDSF security is working,” Col. Rob Manning told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday, referring to the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces. “By all accounts, our assessment is the South Asia strategy is working.”
Asked what metric the department is using to grade Afghan forces, Manning on Monday pointed to a steep reduction in attacks over the last eight years and “the fact that elections are taking place.” Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections are three years overdue because of continued security concerns and domestic political infighting over government control.
Manning also noted that election-related attacks in Afghanistan were down two-thirds from the 2010 elections. That was the deadliest year of the war, with over 700 coalition casualties.
“We realize that attacks are occurring, but we’re going to do everything we can to work with our partners to mitigate that,” he said.
A three-day ceasefire over the summer sparked bullish assessments from senior leaders that the Taliban was open to negotiated peace talks. American diplomats have since continued to engage with the group, but it has continued to carry out gruesome and effective attacks. The Taliban incursion into the city of Ghazni in August was a forceful display of resilience; it resulted in hundreds of Afghan casualties and forced the U.S. to call in airstrikes to counter the assault.
U.S. military leaders have continued to point to progress with the ANDSF. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters over the weekend that he is “pretty confident that the Afghans will be able to maintain the situation” in Kandahar after the death of police chief Abdul Raziq.
But the rising violence has put a fresh and uncomfortable spotlight on America’s longest war. There have been eight U.S. deaths so far this year. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, found that since the so-called Resolute Support mission began in 2015, the ANDSF have “improved some fundamental capabilities,” like high-level operational planning, “but continue to rely on U.S. and coalition support to fill several key capability gaps.” According to DOD’s own reporting, it does not expect the Afghan security forces to “develop and sustain independent capabilities in some areas, such as logistics, for several years.”
Senior leaders say that they remain focused on an Afghan-led peace process; closed-door negotiations between U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban are intended to coax the group into negotiating directly with the Afghan government, although some analysts say they could wind up alienating President Ashraf Ghani.
“We remain absolutely committed to an Afghan-led Afghan reconciliation,” Mattis told reporters at a security conference in Singapore, after the Kandahar attack.