Afghanistan Going off the Rails as U.S. Withdrawal Speeds Up

Insurgent attacks rise as poppy cultivation reaches a post-Taliban high in Afghanistan.


While the world’s eyes are trained on Iraq, Syria, and the fight against the Islamic State, a new report to Congress by the government’s reconstruction watchdog warns that Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups in the longest war in American history, remains dangerously unstable even as the American military withdrawal accelerates.

Insurgent attacks have reached the highest levels since 2011, the Afghan army has sustained heavy combat losses and is experiencing high attrition rates, and opium poppy cultivation has more than doubled from its pre-1999 levels when the Taliban ruled the country, potentially undermining the Afghan state’s legitimacy even as the nation is experiencing budget shortfalls, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said in a quarterly report sent to Congress Thursday.

The dire warnings come as a new Afghan coalition government led by President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah —  who assumed the role of a chief executive officer — has taken power after a contentious election and political standoff. The new government signed security agreements with the United States and NATO allowing international coalition forces to remain in the country after December. The Obama administration has said it will gradually withdraw the remaining 24,000 American troops, with the last leaving the country in 2016. The NATO forces are likely to follow the same pattern, leaving Afghan military forces to take full responsibility for security after 2016.  

As part of that plan, U.S. Marines and British forces on Monday ended their combat mission and vacated two of their largest bases in Afghanistan — Camp Bastion and Camp Leatherneck — in the Helmand province, the site of some of the most violent battles of the 13-year-long war. Since the arrival of forces in 2001, about 350 Marines and 407 British troops have died in Helmand, the Washington Post reported. The departure of the last remaining coalition troops there was carried out in secrecy to prevent Taliban attacks — further evidence of the coalition’s tenuous security gains.

Poppy cultivation, a barometer of the underground economy that plays a role in financing the insurgency, is soaring, the report warned. About 209,000 hectares of land were under poppy cultivation in 2013, an increase of 36 percent from the previous year, the SIGAR report said, citing statistics from the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. The size of the crop has doubled since 1999, when the Taliban ruled the country and opium was grown on 91,000 hectares.

Afghanistan’s opium cultivation supports the equivalent of about 411,000 jobs, exceeding the overall size of the Afghan national security forces, and generates about $3 billion of revenue from drug exports, the report said.

The booming drug trade is potentially fueling the Taliban-led insurgency that still remains strong in the country’s south, southeast, and east. Citing U.N. statistics, the report said that the total number of attacks for the nine months ending Aug. 15 totaled 15,968, or 61 a day — the second-highest level since 2011 after the fall of the Taliban. Military officials and Western observers believe international terrorist groups and the Taliban took advantage of the months-long uncertainty over the outcome of Afghan presidential elections that finally ended Sept. 29 with the formation of the coalition government led by Ghani.

Afghan security forces, which have been leading the fight against the Taliban, face high rates of attrition and combat casualties, the report said.

Between September 2013 and August 2014, more than 36,000 Afghan army personnel were dropped from rolls, and between March 2012 and August 2014 more than 2,850 troops were killed in action with another 14,600 wounded, the report said.

The report, in a strong slap at the Pentagon, said the U.S.-led coalition had made it difficult to independent assessments of the capability of the Afghan forces by abruptly classifying details of the country’s military capabilities. That raises the disturbing possibility that the United States is trying to paper over significant and lingering problems with the Afghan forces already struggling to fill the security vacuum left by the departing American forces.

The inspector general’s office "is deeply troubled by the decision" of the international coalition "to classify the executive summary of the report that assesses the capability of the ANSF which were unclassified prior to this quarter," the report said. "ISAF’s classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort."

The coalition military decided to classify the Afghan military capability "to address potential concerns about operational security," an ISAF military official said in an email. "After careful review, it was determined that the entirety of the report was classified to include the executive summary which contained Afghan-provided readiness information."

Providing such information openly could jeopardize Afghan security forces, the official said, adding that SIGAR will continue to get the information it needs to carry out its congressionally mandated duties.

Unlike previous years, in 2014 the Taliban has attacked Afghan forces on multiple fronts, said Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France, who is now president of Silk Road Consulting, a Washington-based geopolitical advisory firm.

Although such attacks have dealt a psychological blow to Afghan forces, it’s not clear if the Taliban has been able to retain control of territories, said Samad who just returned from Kabul.

"What will make a big difference in the next year or two is the effective use of air power," Samad said. "We don’t know yet whether ANSF who are in training mode now will have the right equipment and training to carry out operations needed or whether they’ll have to be complemented by NATO forces after 2014."

To make matters worse for the new Afghan government, the country’s finance ministry is facing serious budget shortfalls, the report said. For the first seven months of the Afghan financial year that began Dec. 21, 2013, the domestic revenues missed government targets by 22 percent and declined 3.8 percent compared with the same period last year, the report said.

"I don’t think it’s a surprise to Afghans and those who follow it closely that this year would be a challenging year," Samad said. Mismanagement of the country’s economy in the last years of former President Hamid Karzai have made the challenges "bigger than expected,” he added. 

Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam