The Taliban Got Way Deadlier in 2019, Says Pentagon’s Afghanistan IG

Afghan security forces arrive after a powerful explosion outside the provincial police headquarters in Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, July 18, 2019.

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Afghan security forces arrive after a powerful explosion outside the provincial police headquarters in Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, July 18, 2019.

The group mounted 3,500 deadly or wounding attacks this summer, even as U.S. airstrikes rose.

Taliban attacks that wounded or killed civilians or U.S.-allied troops spiked this summer ahead of September’s turbulent national elections and the disintegration of the U.S.-led peace process. 

Roughly half of the group’s 3,500 attacks between June and August caused casualties, a 24 percent rise over the previous quarter and 10 percent more than the same period in 2018, according to the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR

Most of those successful attacks occurred in the south of the country, others in the north and the west. The single worst-hit province was Helmand. 

The number of Afghan security forces killed or wounded rose by 5 percent compared to the same period last year. Seven American servicemembers were killed in action between mid-July and mid-October, bringing the 2019 total to 17 killed and 124 wounded in action. That’s the highest annual total of U.S. combat casualties in the past five years, according to the Defense Department. 

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The sudden uptick in casualties coincides with an unsettled moment in Afghanistan’s political landscape. The Trump administration throughout the summer signaled that peace negotiations with the Taliban were nearing their final days, with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad publicly saying that a deal had been reached “in principle” that would jumpstart a conditioned American withdrawal. President Trump himself was signaling an increased interest in the talks, repeatedly deriding the 20-year combat mission as a mere “police” operation unworthy of U.S. military involvement. 

But even as those talks were ongoing, the Taliban was mounting deadly assaults — remarked on at the time and seen by analysts either as an effort to boost their negotiating position or a signal that the organization had no intention of acceding to a peace deal. 

Then, after a hasty attempt to intervene personally with Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David fell apart in September, the president tweeted that he had “called off peace negotiations” with the Taliban. Officially, Trump blamed a car bombing in Kabul that killed an American service member for his decision to end the talks. (Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz was the sixteenth American to die in Afghanistan in 2019.)

Following the dissolution of the talks, the U.S. military ramped up its air campaign on Taliban targets. (Trump tweeted that “We have been hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years!”)

September “saw more munitions dropped than in any month since recording began in January 2013” — about 1,000, according to the SIGAR report. Between January and September, the military released a total of almost 5,500 weapons, a 4 percent increase compared to the same period in 2018. 

Since 2008, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, has probed the over $100 billion in relief and reconstruction funds spent in Afghanistan since 2002, building the security forces and civil governance institutions, providing development assistance, and running counter-narcotics and anti-corruption efforts. The reports at times have been deeply critical. In November, SIGAR said that Afghan government control over the country was at its lowest point since 2015.

The data on effective Taliban-initiated attacks is important for another reason, according to the report: It is the only remaining unclassified data from an official source tracking security trends in Afghanistan. 

“It is unclassified only at the provincial level and does not include U.S. and Coalition-initiated attacks on the enemy,” the report notes. John Sopko, the inspector general, in the past has decried the increasing kinds of information that is now classified, often at the request of the Afghan government.

“What we are finding is now almost every indicia, metrics for success or failure is now classified or nonexistent. Over time it’s been classified or it’s no longer being collected,” Sopko told reporters in April. “The classification in some areas is needless.”

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