U.S. Losing War in Afghanistan as Militants Take More Land and Tens of Thousands of Security Forces Leave

A new Congress mandated-report has revealed that a vast swath of Afghanistan was under greater insurgent control or influence than any previous year observed by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and that the Pentagon-backed government security forces had declined by tens of thousands of personnel in the past year.

The oversight group released its latest quarterly findings Tuesday, painting a grim picture of the longest war in U.S. history at a time of heightened bloodshed. As of January 31, SIGAR reported that 14.5 percent of Afghanistan's districts were under the control or influence of insurgents—mostly the Taliban—but also including the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

In an email sent to Newsweek, SIGAR described this as "the highest level recorded since SIGAR began receiving district control data" in November 2015, when the level was only 6.6. percent. SIGAR said 56.3 percent of districts were under Afghan government control or influence as of January 31, 2018, with the rest being contested.

In another startling development, SIGAR said that numbers provided by U.S. Forces Afghanistan showed a 4,818-person decrease for the Afghan National Army and a 23,210-person decrease in the Afghan National Police in comparison to figures collected in the same period last year. In total, the Afghan National Security Forces had "35,999 fewer personnel in January 2018 compared to January 2017," a loss of about 10.6 percent.

41761728932_9278d196ef_o A U.S. Air Force F-16C performs aerial patrol over an Afghan district in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the U.S. government’s code name for the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, on March 11. After more than 16 years of war and nearly $1 trillion, the U.S. has struggled to support Afghan partners contain an Islamist insurgency. Air Force Tech Sergeant Gregory Brook/SIGAR

RTX4SL8T A map shows areas of support and control for the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan as of August 1, 2017. The latest Congress-mandated SIGAR report says insurgents since have expanded their control and influence over districts. Institute for the Study of War/Reuters

U.S. involvement in Afghanistan dates back to CIA support for Islamist rebels battling a Soviet-backed government in the 1980s, but the U.S. first entered Afghanistan in October 2001. The U.S. military invaded and ultimately toppled the Islamist Taliban government accused of sheltering fellow jihadi group Al-Qaeda, whose militants conducted the 9/11 attacks less than a month before.

Nevertheless, the Taliban resisted forming a powerful insurgency. In 2003, the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance expanded its International Security Assistance Force tasked with assisting the government to contain the militants and rebuild the country and, in 2015, the NATO mission was renamed Operation Resolute Support. President Donald Trump became the third successive U.S. president to inherit the war in early 2017, later pledging to end the nation-building policies of his predecessors and focus on "killing terrorists" during his debut Afghanistan policy address last August.

Related: “When hope is gone”: Tributes pour in for photojournalist Shah Marai, killed in Kabul bombing

As SIGAR's new report shows, the Taliban has made steady gains in recent years. It has also staged bloody assaults on a regular basis, including an April 2017 coordinated strike on an Afghan army base that killed more than 140 people and injured 160 more—the single deadliest attack since the conflict began in 2001. ISIS, which emerged out of a jihadi Al-Qaeda coalition in post-U.S. invasion Iraq, has struggled to assert itself in Afghanistan and has used extreme violence, especially toward civilians.

A day before SIGAR released its findings, a double suicide bombing struck central Kabul, killing at least 25 people. Local authorities said one of the bombers disguised himself as a reporter and among the dead were a number of journalists, including Agence France-Presse's chief photographer in Afghanistan, Shah Marai. ISIS later claimed responsibility via its official Amaq News Agency, marking the group's second deadly attack in Kabul in less than a week after the jihadis claimed a bombing that killed up to 60 people at an election center.

GettyImages-950191750 Afghan Shiite Muslim mourners carry the coffin of one of the 57 victims of a bomb attack on a voter registration center in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 23. Agence France-Presse photographer Shah Merai took this picture of Afghanistan's ongoing violence, only to be placed in a coffin himself days later due to the unrest. SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

GettyImages-953151294 Relatives and friends of Shah Marai Faizi, Agence France-Presse’s Afghanistan chief photographer, including his AFP photographer colleague Wakil Kohsar (right), carry Marai’s coffin before his burial after his death in the second of two bombings that occurred in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the district of Guldara, on April 30. ANDREW QUILTY/AFP/Getty Images

SIGAR said that, according to the United Nations, the number of security incidents per day was nearly four times higher than the same period two years ago. SIGAR also expressed concern over the wide discrepancies between civilian casualties from air strikes reported by the U.N. and Operation Resolute Support for 2017, with the former recording "631 civilian casualties including 295 deaths—the highest number of civilian casualties from air strikes recorded in a single year" and the U.S. Operation Resolute Support recording "only 51 such casualties in 2017 and 11 between January 1 and March 2, 2018."

Speaking to reporters Monday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. had no plans to withdraw from Afghanistan or Syria anytime soon. He said that Trump's strategy would put Afghan forces "on their back foot," and that he anticipated insurgents "would do their best" to disrupt the upcoming vote in Afghanistan, according to Military.com.

"The Taliban realize the danger of the people being allowed to vote," Mattis said. "Their goal is to destabilize the elected government. This is the normal stuff by people who can't win at the ballot box. They turn to bombs." 

Since 2001, a total of 2,265 U.S. personnel have been killed in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. code name for the "war on terror" declared under former President George W. Bush, and Operation Freedom's Sentinel, which began in 2015, according to the Department of Defense.