In its latest quarterly report to Congress (PDF), the official US watchdog for Afghan reconstruction finds that the security situation is at an all-time low since monitoring began. Since the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) began tracking district control in 2015 Afghan government-controlled or "influenced" districts have declined 16% to 55.5%. In the same period, areas of insurgent control or influence rose 5.5% while "contested" districts increased 11%. As of late July, the US military assessed that the Kabul government controls or influences 226 of Afghanistan's 407 districts, while the Taliban controls/influences 49. The remaining 132 districts are identified as "contested." Since the prior quarterly report, Operation Resolute Support downgraded eight districts from "government influenced" to "contested." SIGAR said that Afghanistan's security forces "made minimal or no progress in pressuring the Taliban" from July 1 to Sept. 30 , the period covered in the report. (Long War Journal, Stars & Stripes, Nov. 1)
US forces in Afghanistan have dropped more munitions in the first three months of 2018 than during the same time period in 2011—a time widely considered the height of the war. The spike in bombing comes after years of drawing down US troops across the country's remote rural areas—and therefore relies increasingly on technical rather than human intelligence. Figures released by US Air Forces Central Command indicate 1,186 "munitions expended by aircraft" in January, February and March this year. In 2011, during those same months, the military documented 1,083 weapons released from both manned and unmanned aircraft. The increase in "kinetic air operations" is part of a strategy to degrade the Taliban’s finances by targeting drug labs, which the insurgents are believed to tax.
President Trump was widely expected to announce a troop surge for Afghanistan n his Aug. 21 address from the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Va. Gen. John Nicholson, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, had been requesting another 4,000 troops, on top of the current 8,500. Instead, Trump's comments were heavy on get-tough rhetoric and light on actual specifics. "Our troops will fight to win," he said. "From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge." In an admission that a surge might be in the works, despite his campaign-trial isolationism, he added: "My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office." (BBC News, WP, Aug. 21)
At least 90 were killed and some 400 others injured in a huge car-bomb explosion in Kabul May 31, targeting the city's diplomatic district of Wazir Akbar Khan, near the presidential palace. Most of the victims were civilians on their way to work during the morning rush hour. There has been no claim of responsibility for the blast, but the Afghan intelligence service NDS said in a statement that the Haqqani Network is suspected. Afghanistan has charged that the Taliban-aligned Haqqani Network receives support from Pakistan's intelligence agency. Taliban mouthpiece Zabihullah Mujahid released a statement denying responsibility in the attack, but days earlier he had issued a statement as Ramadan opened, calling jihad "obligatory worship" and pledging no let-up in attacks.
US Marines this month returned to Helmand province, now the epicenter both of Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency and opium production. Ostensibly, the mission is to train Afghan forces struggling to stem the insurgency, but the Marines certainly have the power to fire if fired upon. Many of the 300 Marines coming to Helmand under NATO's Resolute Support training mission are veterans of previous tours in the province—where almost 1,000 coalition troops (mostly US and British) were killed fighting the Taliban before they pulled out in 2014. When they left, as part of that year's supposed US "withdrawal" from Afghanistan, they handed over the sprawling desert base they dubbed Camp Leatherneck to the Afghan army, hoping not to return. Now they have.
The Trump administration is in talks with Baghdad on keeping US troops in Iraq after the fight against ISIS in the country is over, the Associated Press reported May 5. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are discussing "what the long-term US presence would look like," a US official told the AP. The official said "several thousand... similar to what we have now, maybe a little more," troops would stay in the country, but added that discussions were in early stages and "nothing has been finalized."
The Pentagon is dispatching some 2,500 ground combat troops to a staging base in Kuwait, from where they are expected to be mobilized to back up forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The deployment includes elements of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Bragg, NC. About 1,700 troops from the same unit are already overseas, spread between Iraq and Kuwait. (Army Times, March 9) The US currently has only some 500 troops authorized to operate in Syria, predominantly Special Forces, and it is unclear if this new deployment breaches that threshold. However, the US Special Forces in Syria are increasingly tasked with keeping peace between Kurdish and Turkish forces rather than actually fighting ISIS. Special Forces are currently deployed at Manbij in what the Pentagon calls a mission to "reassure and deter"—interpreted as providing a buffer between Kurdish-led and Turkish-led forces, to prevent open conflict between them. (Military Times, March 6)
The top US military commander in Afghanistan told lawmakers Feb. 9 that he needs several thousand additional troops to break "a stalemate" in the 15-year-old war against the Taliban and other insurgents. Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that more troops could come from the US or other NATO members, and would be tasked with training Afghanistan's security forces to provide better offensive capabilities. Under questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the general said did not need 50,000 troops in the country, but did not rule out the potential for up to 30,000. There are currently some 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan, with 38 other NATO members providing about 6,300 troops.