WASHINGTON (CN) - With peace negotiations underway to end America’s longest running war, experts told Congress Thursday that increased U.S. bombing in Afghanistan over the last year has done little to jostle the Taliban.
The twin trends of diminishing Afghan security forces and increasing security gaps reflect what U.S. military officials call a stalemated war, more than 17 years after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Describing the state of security in Afghanistan in 2018, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said the Taliban “are not losing right now.”
“We used the term stalemate a year ago and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much,” he added.
The reports of stalemated progress have changed little over the past year, according to a watchdog agency known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
In a 278-page report to Congress on Thursday, the Arlington, Virginia-based think tank said the Afghan government controls or influences 54 percent of districts, down from 56 percent a year earlier, and the Taliban's share slipped from 14 percent to 12 percent. Contested territory increased from 30 percent to 34 percent.
Estimates of the strength of Taliban varies from 40,000 to 60,000 fighters, which includes 5,000 of whom were part of the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network.
Thursday's inspector general report says the Afghan army and police forces are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016, short of of their authorized strength of a combined 352,000.
The report cites Department of Defense findings that the Taliban control large portions of Afghanistan’s rural areas, and continue to attack poorly defended government checkpoints and rural district centers.
“The intensity of the fighting and level of bloodshed on both sides has risen as both sides vie for leverage at the negotiating table,” the Department of Defense wrote in December 2018.
Another finding of the inspector general is that, while the United States has insisted that any agreement involve all Afghan parties and provide that Afghanistan not serve as a base for future terror attacks, the Taliban have insisted on the withdrawal of foreign forces and so far have refused to talk directly with the Kabul government.
To date, the United States has obligated $737.6 billion for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan. This amount includes the costs of maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the $132 billion contributed since fiscal year 2002 for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
The reconstruction allocations go toward building schools and clinics, supporting electrification and other infrastructure, promoting alternative livelihoods for farmers currently growing opium poppy, and training Afghan civil, police, and military personnel.
In a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats assessed that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in 2019 if U.S.-led coalition support remains at current levels.
The national intelligence report says Afghan forces generally have secured cities and other government strongholds, but “the Taliban has increased large-scale attacks, and Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls, and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory.”
Coats also predicted that militant groups supported by Pakistan will continue to take advantage of their safe haven in Pakistan to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan, including against U.S. interests.
“Islamabad’s narrow approach to counterterrorism cooperation—using some groups as policy tools and confronting only the militant groups that directly threaten Pakistan—almost certainly will frustrate US counterterrorism efforts against the Taliban,” the report says of Pakistan, which shares a 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.
The morning after Coats addressed Congress, President Trump fired back at the U.S. intelligence community on Twitter, jeering that it was time for the advisers he appointed to "go back to school."
Trump's criticism prompted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to fire off a letter urging Coats, as well as other U.S. Intelligence Community leaders, to stage an intervention with a president who Schumer said "is putting you and your colleagues in an untenable position and hurting the national interest in the process."
"I applaud you and your colleagues in the Intelligence Community for being clear-eyed about the threats we face, but you cannot allow the President's ill-advised and unwarranted comments today to stand," Schumer wrote.