Afghan security forces run from the site of a suicide attack after a second bombing in Kabul on Monday. (Massoud Hossaini/AP)
KABUL — As Afghanistan continues to struggle with conflict and insecurity at the hands of two aggressive insurgencies, the number of Afghan soldiers and police has declined sharply in the past year, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report released Tuesday.
The report, by the U.S. government watchdog agency known as SIGAR, found that the combined roster of military and police forces fell nearly 11 percent over the past year, from about 331,700 in January 2017 to about 296,400 this January. That was far below the total authorized strength of 334,000.
The report came at a time of intensified insurgent attacks in the capital and across the country. In recent weeks, Islamic State militants have carried out several deadly suicide attacks in Kabul, one outside a voter ID registration center that killed 55 people, and twin blasts on Monday in a high-security official zone that killed 25, including nine journalists.
Taliban insurgents, meanwhile, have kept up a high rate of attacks across rural provinces, including Faryab and Ghowr in the west, Baghlan and Kunduz in the north, and Helmand and Nimruz in the south and west. Snubbing an offer of peace talks by President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban last week announced the launch of its annual spring offensive.
The drop in Afghan security force numbers comes as the U.S. government has committed more than 15,000 troops to Afghanistan in an effort to turn around the stalemated war, with a focus on training more security personnel and on expanding the size of the air force and the special operations forces. But there have been signals that problems exist in fielding as many Afghan soldiers and police as desired.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province told The Washington Post last month that the main Afghan army unit there, the 215th Corps, was designed to have about 18,500 soldiers but actually had closer to 9,500. The 215th Corps’ commander, Maj. Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, said that he considered himself about 5,000 soldiers short and that he had been promised another 2,000 soon. But he had no sense of when that might occur.
The trouble over the total number of Afghan soldiers also comes amid an ambitious effort directed by Ghani to nearly double the number of Afghan special operations personnel from 11,700 to 23,300 by 2020.
U.S. military officials have acknowledged that when more soldiers go to commando school, fewer go to conventional military units. The effort to double the number of commandos also has been boosted by the Afghan military directing some existing units to go to commando school, which increases the number of commandos without actually increasing the size of the Afghan military.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking Tuesday with reporters in Washington, said that despite the recent high-profile bombings and the new Taliban push, that effort was beginning to bear fruit.
“We knew there would be tough fighting going forward,” he said. “The Afghan military is being made more capable.” He said that Afghan special operations forces, advised and accompanied by NATO mentors, “are the most effective forces. So the expansion there is why the enemy has been unable to take any district centers, provincial centers, or make any advances there.”
Mattis said that the joint forces have been able to block many attacks on civilians, but that “unfortunately once in a while they get through . . . this is simply what they do; they murder innocent people.” He said the U.S. and NATO mission will “stand by the Afghan government” and continue to pressure the insurgents to “drive them to a political settlement.”
Along with its boosting of Afghan forces, the U.S. has stepped up air attacks and unmanned drone strikes under expanded authority from the Trump administration and has claimed numerous successes in killing Taliban and Islamic State commanders.
Several experts on the conflict, however, said that while the year-long American military effort needs more time to produce results, it has made little discernible difference so far on the battlefield or in the political calculus of the insurgents.
“Only a starry-eyed optimist can seriously suggest that the new plan is going well,” said Michael Kugelman, a specialist on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“There are few indications that a ramped-up training mission and battlefield fight are turning the tide in the war,” Kugelman said. “So long as the Taliban believes it is winning, it is unlikely to agree to peace talks, no matter how generous the offer. And let’s be clear — the Taliban very much thinks it is winning.”
The SIGAR report did not specify the reasons for the dramatic decline in Afghan force numbers, aside from some shifts of personnel between security branches. The rates of attrition, desertion and failure to reenlist, and the reasons for these continued problems, remained classified at the request of Afghan authorities, it said.
U.S. military officials have previously cited numerous serious problems that have contributed to demoralization in the ranks, including corruption and abuse by senior commanders, failure to pay salaries, ethnic tensions within units and in deployment areas, false payroll records listing “ghost soldiers,” and poor leadership.
Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has worked closely with Ghani to develop a plan to reform and bolster Afghan forces, with a goal of making them self-sufficient in the next several years.
The SIGAR report included some slightly positive news. It found that the percentage of the populace controlled or influenced by the Afghan government increased from 64 percent to 65 percent between October and January. On the other hand, it also reported that as of Jan. 1, 14.5 percent of the country’s districts were under insurgent control or influence — the highest level recorded since SIGAR began receiving such information.
Many Afghans say they are fed up with the government’s inability to protect civilians, especially after a long string of insurgent attacks in Kabul. And some experts believe that Afghan forces may never develop the will or capacity to defeat the insurgents or force them to negotiate.
“Building up the Afghan forces is a top priority for the U.S. and our international allies, so it is worrisome to see Afghan force strength decreasing,” John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, told news services on Tuesday.
Dan Lamothe and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.