A U.S. government watchdog is expressing increased skepticism about the prospects for peace in Afghanistan, warning the United States-led push to reconcile Afghanistan’s Western-backed government with the Taliban are failing short.
In a blunt assessment Monday, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) warned that despite the fanfare that surrounded last year’s withdrawal agreement between Washington and the Taliban, follow-on talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul “have so far yielded few substantive results.”
“There has been no cease-fire agreement and high levels of insurgent and extremist violence continued in Afghanistan this quarter despite repeated pleas from senior U.S. and international officials," Special Inspector General John Sopko wrote in his latest quarterly report, the 50th such assessment sent to U.S. lawmakers.
“Nor is it evident … that the Taliban has broken ties with the al-Qaida terrorists who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks on the United States,” he added.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement requires all American and NATO troops to leave the country by May in return for the insurgents’ counterterrorism guarantees and pledges they will negotiate with Afghan rivals a political deal to permanently end two decades of Afghan war.
Yet despite the agreement, U.S. military officials have repeatedly cast doubt on the Taliban's intent and desire to follow through on its guarantees to Washington. And the new report suggests progress in other keys areas has likewise been stymied.
The SIGAR report, based on data from the U.S. military and the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, cautioned fighting raged across much of the country over the last three months of 2020.
According to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, while the number of so-called enemy-initiated attacks were “slightly lower” in the fourth quarter of 2020 than they were in the previous three months, attacks had still increased compared to the same time in 2019.
In some part of Afghanistan, the trend appeared to be even more worrisome.
“Enemy attacks in Kabul were higher than during the previous quarter,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan told SIGAR. “They were much higher than in the same quarter last year."
There are also indications that despite maintaining sufficient troop levels, Afghan security forces continued to lose ground to the Taliban.
SIGAR found that the Afghan National Army abandoned almost 200 checkpoints in Kandahar province to Taliban fighters in December alone, allowing the Taliban to acquire government weapons and ammunition.
In response to the unrelenting violence, Afghan forces doubled the number of ground operations, compared to the same time last year while the number of U.S. airstrikes -- “almost exclusively defensive strikes in support of Afghan forces” according the SIGAR report – likewise increased.
So too, the Pentagon’s drawdown to 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is also starting to reverberate.
"[U.S.] defense officials acknowledge that this lower force level introduces some limitations on force capacity and on the train, advise, and assist mission," SIGAR’s Sopko wrote.
“Time is critical,” he added. “As the new administration and Congress start to deal with the thorny issues related to Afghanistan, they should be aware that not only do those risks persist, but they now also extend to wider concerns that the Afghan state itself may be unsustainable without continued international engagement.”
The SIGAR report comes as international concerns about Afghanistan are also rising.
The European Union Delegation to Afghanistan, along with NATO, the U.S., Britain and Canada, on Monday issued a statement to “strongly condemn the continuation of assassinations, kidnappings and destruction of vital infrastructure.”
“The Taliban must understand that their violent, destructive actions outrage the world and must cease if peace is to come to Afghanistan,” the statement added.
But the Taliban Monday rejected the charges, calling them “unsubstantiated.”
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has absolutely no hand in civilian killing and neither is it involved in the destruction of public infrastructure,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement, placing the blame instead on other countries.
Last Friday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a virtual forum that it appears the Taliban are using the idea of talks simply to buy time.
"The Taliban have been finding one excuse after another not to meet,” Ghani warned, adding “violence has peaked.”
"If Taliban realize they can prevail through violence, they will not let go," he said.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has said it is not taking such concerns lightly.
The U.S is “taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are in fact complying,” new National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told a virtual forum this past Friday when asked about evidence the group is still not making good on all aspects of its deal with Washington.
"In that context, we will make decisions about our force posture & our diplomatic strategy going forward," Sullivan added.