Afghanistan’s Great Gap

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OPINION — The Biden administration is reviewing not just the February 2020, Trump administration agreement with the Taliban that calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan by May 1, but also the impact of Trump’s surprise, pre-election, October tweet to cut current troop levels to 2,500 from 4,000 by last Christmas.

On November 17, as a lame duck, Trump ordered then-Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to carry out the reduction. However, Congress in the fiscal 2021 Defense Authorization Bill, which passed January 1, limited use of funds to lower below 4,000 the U.S. forces in Afghanistan without a report detailing the impact such a reduction would have on U.S. counterterrorism objectives and the Afghan peace talks.

However, Trump followed that with a waiver to the stipulated force level and the reduction to 2,500 was accomplished by January 15, five days before Trump left office.

Although American commanders in Afghanistan claimed at the time that the Trump reductions would not affect their mission, the January 31, most recent quarterly report of John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), took issue with that position.

He pointed out that he has not yet had a chance to test or audit whether the lower number of  U.S. forces have the “ability to execute and/or oversee costly and necessary taxpayer-funded contracts to train and sustain the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and to provide them [Afghan forces] hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and direct-assistance funds.”

In his report, Sopko pointed out that after spending some $8.5 billion since 2010 on the Afghan Air Force, his inspectors have found there is no policy or strategy to recruit new personnel as pilots or maintenance personnel despite providing financial incentives for such positions.

In addition, a Defense Department investigation found almost 94 percent of NATO trainers helping build the Afghan Air Force, mostly Americans, have departed over the past several months, thereby limiting missions flown by its pilots, which provided the major firepower to defeat Taliban attacks. That has meant a sustainable Afghan Air Force will require outside contractors for years to come, according to the SIGAR report.

Sopko also reported, “U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said that this quarter, enemy attacks in Kabul were higher than they were last quarter, and ‘much higher’ than in the same quarter a year prior. Recent heavy fighting between U.S., Afghan, and Taliban forces in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces has forced thousands of Afghan civilians to flee their homes.”

One positive sign in Sopko’s report was increased activity of the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF). In the three months ending January 31, ASSF carried out over 1,000 ground operations, up 4 percent from the earlier quarter and double those from a year ago. More important, 94 percent of the operations “were independent of U.S. and Coalition advisor support or accompaniment,” according to Sopko’s report. With that as background, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters last Friday: “We are committed to a responsible and sustainable end to this war while preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups,”

“We are mindful of the looming deadline,” he said, adding, “At this time, no decisions about our future force posture have been made.”

Austin warned, “Clearly, the violence is too high right now and more progress needs to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations. So, I urge all parties to choose the path towards peace. The violence must decrease now.”

He also said, in an obvious contrast to the Trump era, “As we move forward in our review, we will consult with our NATO allies, our Resolute Support partners and of course, the Government of Afghanistan. And there will be no surprises. We will consult each other and consult together and decide together and act together.”

Austin said, “No matter what the outcome of our review, the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts their forces or the alliance’s representation at risk.”

Based on Austin’s words, it is doubtful that further U.S. troop reductions will occur before that May 1 deadline, without a major change in Taliban activities.

But security is far from the only task the U.S. and its allies have underway in Afghanistan, which, according to the World Bank, could not exist as a viable state without outside economic assistance due to its failing economy.

Last November, at a donor conference in Geneva, more than a dozen nations pledged approximately $3.3 billion in new development assistance in 2021 for Afghanistan, with expectations that additional funds totaling over $12 billion could be forthcoming through 2024.

As the level of foreign troops in Afghanistan declines, “U.S. reconstruction programs aimed at promoting economic development, rule of law, respect for human rights, good governance, and security for the Afghan people may become the primary lever of U.S. influence in the country, heightening the need to protect those programs against waste, fraud, and abuse with unrelenting and effective oversight,” Sopko reported.

Congress has also played a part.

The December 27, Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 included provisions that require the Secretary of State “to promote and ensure the meaningful participation of Afghan women in intra-Afghan negotiations,” and to develop “a multiyear diplomatic and development strategy for Afghanistan, to include a component to protect and strengthen Afghan women and girls’ welfare and rights.” It also requires $20 million be spent for “recruitment and retention of women in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and for recruitment and training of female security personnel.”

Not everything is working.

Sopko’s report points out that corruption remains a major problem, saying, “The Afghan government often takes paper or process steps, such as drafting regulations or holding meetings, rather than concrete actions that would reduce corruption, such as arresting or enforcing penalties on powerful Afghans.”

A review of the use of cash-counting machines at Hamid Karzai International Airport to detect cash smuggling “found that customs officials rarely used the machines and did not record and send serial number data to proper Afghan authorities.” Perhaps more important, “senior government officials and other individuals with political influence, designated by the Office of the President as very important persons (VIP), were exempted from the customs process.”

In fact, Sopko reported, while non-VIPs go through five checkpoints, VIP passengers are transported directly to the VIP terminal where their luggage is scanned, but they face no declaration forms or cash-counting machines. Meanwhile, VVIP persons are not screened and can be transported directly to aircraft for boarding.

Audits have found questionable items, such as $6.2 million in “questioned costs” on a $23 million contract to support four C-130 Afghan Air Force aircraft at Kabul Airport.

Despite spending some $9 billion for counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, the opium-economy has grown exponentially over that period. “That trade helps fund insurgents, terrorists, and criminal networks; fosters corruption; undermines public regard for the government; and creates public-health and social problems,” according to the SIGAR report.

Overall, since 2001, $815.7 billion has been spent for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, including the cost of maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

As of September 30, 2020, since 2002, the U.S. has appropriated approximately $130.5 billion for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan, with $88.32 billion for security (such as $4.60 billion for counternarcotics initiatives); $35.95 billion for governance and development ($4.41 billion for counternarcotics initiatives); $4.13 billion for humanitarian aid; and $14.87 billion general agency operations.

On February 16, in an open letter to the American people, the Taliban reiterated the terms of the February 2020 agreement that by May 1, “all foreign military forces along with their non-diplomatic personnel, private contractors, advisors, trainers and service providers withdraw from Afghanistan…while the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] would reciprocate by committing itself to preventing all threats to the security of other nations from Afghanistan.”

Three days later, President Biden said of Afghanistan, “My administration strongly supports the diplomatic process that is underway to bring an end to this war. We remain committed to ensuring that Afghanistan never again provides a base for terrorist attacks against the United States and our partners.”

As of now, there is a great gap between those two statements and while it is apparent the Biden administration needs to do more to fulfill the President’s commitment, the questions remain what more, and for how long?

Find more expert-driven national security insight, perspective an analysis in The Cipher Brief

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