The Pulse | Security | South Asia

Report: SIGAR Notes Record-High Attack Numbers in Afghanistan

Enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan during the fourth quarter of 2019 were the highest for that quarter in any year going back to 2010.

Catherine Putz
Report: SIGAR Notes Record-High Attack Numbers in Afghanistan
Credit: Photo by Master Sgt. Alejandro Licea

Even as the United States pursues a deal with the Taliban, violence continues to rage in Afghanistan. According to U.S. government figures, enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan during the fourth quarter of 2019 were the highest for that quarter in any year going back to 2010, when recording began.

The latest quarterly report (PDF) from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released this week, contains the usual cataloging of data and information on U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and SIGAR”s attempt to provide some accounting for U.S. tax dollars poured into the conflict. In the report, running over 180 pages, SIGAR lays out its oversight activities and provides update on reconstruction efforts, including security metrics. The January 2020 report also includes a section focused on “the cancer of corruption.”

To date, the U.S. Congress has appropriated nearly $86.4 billion for security in Afghanistan. This represents the bulk, about 63 percent, of U.S. spending on Afghanistan reconstruction since 2002.

Since the conflict began in October 2001, 2,433 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 have been injured. For Afghans, the totals are arguably vastly higher but more difficult to report with any degree of accuracy. Since October 2017, U.S. Forces Afghanistan has classified or otherwise restricted data on ANDSF casualties and other information including information on the “misuse of Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) by the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Interior (MOI).” According to SIGAR this is “due to Afghan government classification guidelines or other restrictions.”

The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimated Afghan National Military and Police deaths as surpassing 64,000 as of November 2019.

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September 2019, when Afghans went to the polls to elect a new president, notched the highest number of enemy-initiated attacks of any month since June 2012, according to SIGAR. 

“Enemy-initiated attacks” refer to all attacks considered significant by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and Resolute Support (RS), the name of the current U.S. mission. “Effective enemy-initiated attacks” refer to such attacks initiated by insurgents which result in casualties. Of those, September 2019 recorded the highest since records began in January 2010. 

The report notes that there was an apparent decline in attacks early in 2019 during active peace negotiations. But the second half of the year saw a return to high levels of violence. At the same time that there were more enemy-initiated attacks, civilian casualties nonetheless declined in late 2019.

When it comes to corruption, SIGAR continues to be concerned that the “Afghan government is more interested in checking off boxes for the international community than in actually uprooting its corruption problem.”

The Afghan government checked a number of boxes in its anticorruption strategy, but not as many as it aimed to and doing so is simply a first step. For example, one met benchmark in 2019 was “Enact Whistle Blower Protection Law.” But have Afghan authorities made use of the opportunity created by achieving that benchmark? 

One such illustrated gap between a benchmark achieved and reality of implementation highlighted in the SIGAR report is the Afghan government’s lack of executing arrest warrants:

As of January 2019, the Afghan attorney general’s office told SIGAR there was a list of 6,586 people with outstanding arrest warrants from the preceding two years. In comments on a draft of the SIGAR audit, the Afghan government said its Ministry of Interior had arrested more than 1,500 people from the list.11 Presumably, the remaining 5,000 people had not yet been arrested, two years on… The government’s failure to take action against powerful individuals is a long-standing problem.

In this case, there are laws on the books, benchmarks successfully checked — but those accused of various crimes remain free. SIGAR, and the stakeholders consulted for the report, all point to a lack of sustained political will. 

Afghanistan needs foreign donors for a bulk of its budget — 75 percent of the country’s public expenditures is covered by donors — but patience is waning. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is expected to host another aid-pledging conference for Afghanistan in 2020. Continued stalled progress on fighting corruption could keep the world’s checkbooks closed to a desperate Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, the United States is still looking for the exit door under U.S. President Donald Trump. In testimony this week for the subcommittee on national security in the U.S. House of Representatives’ committee on oversight and reform, SIGAR John F. Sopko warned that a peace agreement, “could lead to unintended challenges for the reconstruction efforts made over the past 18 years by the United States.” SIGAR remains agnostic on whether a peace deal is “achievable, imminent, or practicable” but Sopko called to the front the old maxim “failing to plan is planning to fail” and directed attention to several areas of significant risk, such as insecurity, sluggish economic growth and the challenges of reintegration.

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You can read SIGAR’s latest quarterly report here.