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.
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