The US Still Isn't Doing Great In Afghanistan Or Iraq, These Numbers Show

The numbers in two recent reports show a slow backslide in Iraq and Afghanistan despite almost two decades of US involvement.

The US is stuck between stagnation and backsliding in its longest-running wars despite investing almost two decades, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives.

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That’s the bleak picture painted by two recent reports, one on Afghanistan, the other on Iraq and Syria, released by the Pentagon’s independent oversight agencies.

Coming nine months after the Trump administration rolled out a new Afghanistan policy, and just six months after the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS, the two reports are a stark contrast to the optimistic outlook presented by Pentagon officials in recent months.

In November, the top US commander in Afghanistan called Trump’s new strategy for the country a “game changer” for a 17-year conflict that had, once again, “turned the corner” after the president committed 4,000 additional troops. The military’s own data contradicts that, according to the watchdog agency, which has also raised concerns that the Pentagon has stopped providing some details about both conflicts in recent months.

High casualty rates and desertions mean that despite the US multibillion-dollar training program, the numbers of Afghan security forces “have suffered a sharp decline in strength.” The insurgents’ control over districts are at the highest level since the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, began receiving the data in 2015. US troops continue to suffer higher casualties than in recent years, and the capital has been shaken by a violent wave of suicide bombings and terror attacks.

"The Taliban knows what's going on, the Afghan government knows what's going on, the only people who don't know what's going on are the people who are paying for it — the American taxpayer,” said John Sopko, the special inspector general who put out the report.

Even the fight against ISIS, the US military’s main touted success in recent years, has hit significant snags despite the president essentially declaring victory.

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The second report, issued by the Pentagon's inspector general, describes the US-led coalition being forced into a two-month “operational pause” when Turkey’s incursion into the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin led the US-allied Kurdish forces to abandon the fight against ISIS to defend the city.

This allowed ISIS fighters to take advantage, hold onto their remaining territory and seize some additional territory in other parts of the country, leading the US military to revise its figure of territory lost by the group from 98% to 90%. ISIS is also regrouping in northern Iraq, according the report, which draws parallels to the way the insurgency organized itself between 2009 and 2013.

The Justice Department and the FBI "reported that despite counterterrorism and military pressure in Iraq and Syria, they have not seen a substantial change in the nature and frequency of threats from ISIS and its affiliates and supporters worldwide," the report said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon continued to give the same assurances it has given for years — that the Taliban is on its “back foot,” and the deteriorating situation is a sign of its desperation.

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Military reports cited senior officers talking about “breathtaking” progress against the Taliban as a result of the new strategy. Earlier this month, Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told reporters that the Taliban is “desperate” because it is “losing ground.”

Mattis had to temper his department's comments in the wake of the April 30 bombings that killed at least 35 people in Kabul, including 10 journalists. Asked how he reconciled the Pentagon's rosy view of an improving situation with these attacks, he said, "I don't know that that's been the message from this building...we knew there would be tough fighting going forward."

Here's what the reports' numbers have to say:

6% — Afghan security forces' reduction in total manpower in the last year, according to a SIGAR release Tuesday.

Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images

The numbers provided by US Forces Afghanistan show a 17,980-person decrease for the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police in comparison to figures collected in the same period last year. These numbers had to be amended after the initial Defense Department data showed a much more drastic 11% decline.

Last week, Mattis told a Senate committee that the US military was focusing on the “quality, not quantity” of Afghan security forces.

After Tuesday’s correction, the SIGAR inspector general slammed the Defense Department for having “classified or marked not releasable to the public large amounts of data in a seemingly haphazard fashion” in the last three quarters.

1,000 — Estimated number of fighters in a new ISIS-linked group that calls itself the White Flags, hundreds of them former ISIS members, which has regrouped in northern Iraq and are battling against Kurdish troops.

Safin Hamed / AFP / Getty Images

“The White Flags have taken advantage of the gaps in security cooperation between the ISF and the Kurdish Peshmerga to conduct attacks and escape,” the report says.

23,744 — Security incidents in Afghanistan in 2017, the most ever recorded.

Noorullah Shirzada / AFP / Getty Images

In the two months between Dec. 15, 2017 and Feb. 15, 2018, the United Nations "recorded an average of 55.9 security incidents per day -- nearly four incidents per day higher than the same period two years ago."

14.5% — Afghan districts under control or influence of the Taliban.

Handout / Reuters

That number is unchanged since the last report despite the US efforts to force the group from its strongholds. It's also the highest number since SIGAR started reporting on this in 2015, when that figure was 6.6%. Since August 2016, "Afghan government control has decreased by roughly four percentage points, and the overall trend for the insurgency is rising control over the population," according to SIGAR.

1,186 — Number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan in the first quarter of 2018.

Omar Sobhani / Reuters

That marks "the highest number recorded for this period since reporting began in 2013, and ... over two and a half times the amount dropped in the first quarter of 2017," SIGAR states.

5,200 — Approximate number of US troops in Iraq.

Azad Lashkari / Reuters

The Pentagon has begun to draw down that number, as it ends major combat operations against ISIS in the country, and transfer equipment and personnel to Afghanistan. This comes as ISIS has stepped up its claims of attacks north and west of the capital Baghdad, and threatened to disrupt the May 12 elections in which the presence of US troops was a wedge issue.

631 — Civilian casualties recorded by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, including 295 deaths, “the highest number of civilian casualties from air strikes recorded in a single year.”

Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images

In contrast, the US-led Resolute Support mission “provided a much lower figure for civilian casualties caused by Coalition air strikes, only 51 such casualties in 2017 and 11 between January 1 and March 2, 2018."

102 — US troops wounded in Afghanistan in 2017.

Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

While 11 service members were killed compared to nine the year before, the number of those injured rose more sharply — 75 and 71 troops were wounded in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Two US military members have been killed and 22 have been wounded in Afghanistan so far in 2018.

Since the beginning of the war, 2,269 Defense Department personnel have been killed, including service members and civilians, and 20,318 have been wounded in Afghanistan.

2 — the number of months in the “operational pause” in anti-ISIS operations in Syria after US-partnered Kurdish forces left to defend Syrian Kurdish towns from the assault by Turkey.

Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images

This enabled ISIS in some areas to "regroup, gain in strength,” according to the report. US military officials have acknowledged that ISIS fighters are on the rebound in some areas and that the estimate of how much territory the group has lost is now lower than it was just a month ago.

6 — The number of “increasingly brazen” incidents in which militants in northern Iraq have “targeted civilians and security personnel at fake checkpoints" in areas where "the government has lauded ISIS' defeat."

Essam al-Sudani / Reuters

This is concerning because many of these were assassinations of local leaders, which was a hallmark of the 2009–13 insurgency led by ISIS’s precursor, according to the report.

This violence “suggests that ISIS operatives and sleeper cells are working to build insurgent infrastructure and will likely continue to disrupt governance and stabilization efforts going forward,” the report says.