‘Desperate’ Taliban ‘has lost ground,’ Pentagon spokesperson wrongly claims

The ignorance of US government officials on the situation in Afghanistan and the nature of our enemy continues to remain on full display. Over the past two weeks, senior US officials have scrambled to make uneducated comments about Afghanistan and the jihadists waging war there.

First, Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan urged the Taliban to “run for office.” Then, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the Islamic State kills people because they can’t win elections. Those two inane statements (the Taliban and Islamic State don’t believe in elections, they consider democratic governments sinful) were followed by Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller’s comment that the American military is the real “mujahideen” in Afghanistan (mujahideen are Muslims who wage jihad).

All of these statements are absurd on their face. But Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White managed to top them all at the May 3 press briefing, when she described the Taliban as “desperate” because it is “losing ground.” Additionally, White said that over the last year, “things are moving in the right direction.” (The portion of the question and answer session is reproduced in full, below.)

Now, it is unclear what information White and General Nicholson, the commander of Resolute Support who is cited by White, have seen. But the latest quarterly report from the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which uses information provided by Resolute Support and the US military, tells an entirely different story.

LWJ highly recommends that Nicholson and White read SIGAR’s latest report. Here are some of the key points made in the Security section (beginning on Page 77):

– The Taliban controls and contests more districts since SIGAR started reporting on this in 2015. LWJ’s data on district control paints an even more dire picture.
– The Taliban control the largest percentage of the Afghan population than at any point during the war.
– Security incidents in 2017 were at the highest level ever recorded.
– Sectarian attacks have increased three-fold (primarily due to increased activity of the Islamic State’s Khorasan province, the Islamic State’s branch in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region).
– The size of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) decreased by 11 percent.
– Data on ANDSF casualties and other key indicators remains classified (if the casualty data was positive, you can be sure it wouldn’t be classified).
– Green-on-green insider attacks, where Afghan troops turn on their own, are up from last year. These attacks are primarily caused by Taliban infiltration of Afghan units.

SIGAR’s report is instructive because the information is derived from the same military that is telling us all is well in Afghanistan. But even a casual reading of press reports from Afghanistan will tell you that things are not going as well as White and Nicholson are telling you.

White’s comments harkens back to Sept. 2012, when then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta claimed that the sharp rise of green-on-blue attacks, in which Afghan security personnel attack Coalition forces, were due to the “last gasp” of a dying Taliban. And when President Obama said that the Taliban’s “momentum is broken.”

Six years later, there is little evidence that the Taliban was taking its last gasp or its momentum was broken. And yet today, US officials continue to make the same mistakes as the previous administrations.

The Taliban is neither “desperate” nor is it “losing ground” in Afghanistan. Pollyanish press briefings cannot paper over the fact that things are currently not going well.

Excerpt from the May 3 Pentagon press briefing:

Q: Speaking of Afghanistan, the past few weeks have been particularly bloody for the country. What’s your assessment of the ANDSF, and how they’re progressing to (inaudible) troops, in particular (inaudible) recorded a sharp drop in — in their numbers over the past year.

MS. WHITE: The Taliban has lost ground. And I believe General Nicholson has talked about that and — about the [sic] losing ground, as well as all of the sights [sic], as far as resources, financial targeting that they’ve done.

So they have lost ground. And I think you can see by the fact that their attacks have been more spectacular and they’ve killed more civilian innocent lives, shows that they’re desperate.

So I think there’s plenty of evidence, and there’s been plenty of evidence in the last year, that things are moving in the right direction.

Q: If I could follow up, the Defense Department has characterized these attacks as acts of desperation. What made you conclude that, as opposed to the Taliban and ISIS adopting a more effective tactic?

MS. WHITE: I say that because they’re losing ground. The number of provinces that have governance is increasing.

If you are to — we say that they’re desperate, because people take drastic measures in which you’re killing innocents, you’re targeting people who are simply trying to vote, because you don’t have another method.

So as the secretary said earlier, they need something spectacular so that media shows it, so that they can get attention. Because they’re not capable of convincing the people that they are a viable option.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Glenn says:

    There’s a PBS show on Netflix about the fall of Saigon which I watched 2 nights ago. Ambassador Graham Martin exacerbated an already desperate problem by denying *any* problems existed, and disallowing “negative talk” for months, all the way to our last 11 guys getting out, leaving a recently estimated 30,000 Vietnamese allies for the firing squads, due in very large part to last-minute planning. Meanwhile Washington looked the other way. Henry Kissinger once quipped that “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

  • C says:

    Typical of a crumbling empire. Lie’s, just like baghdad bob, goebbels,ussr and all the rest.
    It’s sad what we…..Accept

  • Mike says:

    Bill, I do appreciate your expertise on this matter. If you had to advise the current administration on the Afghanistan situation, what would be your major recommendations?

  • Robert Bentley says:

    No US commander is ever going to come out and admit, “our campaign is failing and we stand little chance of success,” no matter how they may feel about it in private. Which why outside, well-informed, impartial observers are essential to providing a realistic assessment of the prospects.

    The really sad thing about our Long War commitments is how we have become so over-committed as a nation to the strategic sideshows of the Long War when the real game for global influence is being played out in East Asia. China’s rise is the issue that will define power relationships in the 21st century, not who controls Afghanistan. Or Syria. Or Iraq. Or Somalia, Yemen, Mali…. We need to get our own house in order and refocus on the main game.

  • Richard Cavagnol says:

    Read “Directorate S” by Stephen Coll to gain an insight into monumental and continuous screw-ups in Afghanistan. I spent a year in Helmand and Nimroz provinces as a USAID Field Program Officer and found the senior State Department folks and 3161’s as well as junior State Department on the PRT to be clueless and incompetent. They were there to get their ticket punched. The USAID personnel I worked with had their heads screwed on right and got close to the local Afghans and District Governors to make things happen. I had served one of my three combat tours as a Marine officer in Vietnam and as advisors with the Vietnamese Marines and learned a great deal about culture, establishing rapport and how to deal with foreign nationals. Many of our civilians and military were arrogant and unwilling to listen to their counterparts.

  • John Barr says:

    Terrorist incidents are up for sure, but on the flipside life continues as normal. Kabul is essentially an isolated city state like many of the other main urban population centres located around the country. It must be kept in mind that the current security situation, as bad as it is, actually benefits many interest groups which are happy with the status quo. If NATO and the international community were to withdraw, then who will pay for expensive villas in Dubai and the private education of the sons and daughters of corrupt Afghan politicians. The tribes that made up the old Northern Alliance will never let Kabul fall, let alone NATO. Although Dostum officially resides in Turkey, he will periodically return and personally lead counter-offensives against the Taliban if things get too dire, which he did last year and was apparently wounded in an ambush. Agreed, the Taliban have territorial control of huge chunks of Afghanistan, but they won’t get complete control. Remember that they never took the Panshir Valley from Massoud and the Tajik tribes during the civil war of the 90’s, and Dostum’s Uzbeks are a force to be reckoned with too. In the meantime the status quo will continue, because it benefits all parties for now, until an outside nation state decides to up the stakes and permit the Taliban to use surface to air missiles. That will be a game changer for sure, just as it was with the Soviets. Everything is smoke and mirrors in this place and shouldn’t be taken at face value.

    JWB from Kabul.

  • Thanks to Bill Roggio once more for his very realistic, true remarks about official US ‘politics’ on Afghanistan. Like previous US administrations, policies of the current one will get Afghans and Americans, or the rest of us, precisely nowhere. But which government or international institution will finally do better? Waiting for China to step in? I fully endorse Mr Cavagnol’s view, apparently born out of hard experience, on the attitudes of many civilians and military operating abroad. His critical remark reminds me of how Soviet troops entering Afghanistan at the end of 1979 were told by their government how they would be welcomed by the ‘local population’; with enthusiasm and flowers. Between 1979 and 1989 some 29.000 Russians got killed there. I warmly recommend the latest book by Steve Coll, as well. For those who are interested; you can find & read my review about Coll’s ‘Directorate S’ on our website, immigvanheugten.nl Just go to ‘Our publications’.

  • D says:

    Absolutely correct!
    The Tipping Point is edging closer each day…

  • Ed Wezain says:

    First of all a great article followed by informative comments by all. My two cents on Afghanistan deals with corruption. It is endemic across all Afghan government services. By injecting large amounts of cash into Afghanistan we actually hurt the country, rather then helped. I know a number of people who served as police advisors to both the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army units. It was commonly assumed (and sometimes proven) that about 20 % of the personnel were ghost employees. Leadership positions in these organizations were often bought based on what could be illicitly earned from these positions, whether it be selling government weapons and ammunition to the Taliban, ghost payrolls or setting up checkpoints to extort the local population. Much the same was true of Afghan’s judicial system, which is why the average Joe Afghani in the countryside often preferred to have his case heard by Taliban judges who were thought to be more even-handed and impartial in their rulings. Because of this the Afghan government will continue to loose territory to the Taliban. Also expect the SIGARS reports to be classified soon to stop the spread of bad news.

  • Carol Grayson says:

    Nothing desperate about the Taliban… now which district fell today, must check back. They are looking very confident, and possibly better equipped than Afghan army. Will soon be time for Americans to get on the Embassy roof, deja vu Saigon. US is surely not supporting that old alleged war criminal Dostum? Shouldn’t he be before a criminal court? If US truly wants peace then talk direct to Taliban… why would they talk to a Kabul government installed with foreign help following their allegedly illegal overthrow? Time is up for US in Afghanistan!

  • pre-Boomer Marine brat says:

    We have an Andrew Jackson-type President (and yes, I did vote for him, but the characterization is hardly a compliment).


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