US Watchdog: Taliban Attacks Increase in Afghan Capital

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Taliban attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul are on the rise, with increasing targeted killings of government officials, civil-society leaders and journalists, a report by a U.S. watchdog said Monday.

It comes as the Biden administration plans to take a new look at the peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban signed last February under President Donald Trump.

The report said Taliban-initiated attacks across Afghanistan during the last quarter of 2020 were slightly lower than in the previous quarter, but exceeded those of the same period in 2019, according to numbers provided by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“Enemy attacks in Kabul were higher than during the previous quarter," the report quoted U.S. forces. “They were much higher than in the same quarter last year.”

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, monitors the billions of dollars the U.S. spends in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The Taliban unleashed a wave of attacks in Afghanistan in December, including strikes in northern Baghlan and southern Uruzgan provinces over a two-day period that killed at least 19 members of the Afghan security forces. In Kabul, a roadside bomb struck a vehicle, wounding two, and a lawyer was shot in a targeted killing.

Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, reported 2,586 civilian casualties from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 last year, including 810 killed and 1,776 wounded, according to the SIGAR report.

The report said the proportion of casualties caused by improvised explosive devices increased by nearly 17% in this quarter, correlating with an increase in magnetically attached IEDs or “sticky bomb” attacks, the report said.

Despite the ongoing violence, casualties across Afghanistan in the last quarter of 2020 decreased by 14%, compared to the previous quarter. The quarter saw an exceptionally high number of casualties for the winter months, however, when fighting normally subsides.

The U.S. has been the prime backer of the Afghan government since it invaded the country soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and overthrew the Taliban, who were running the country and harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The U.S. is still spending about $4 billion a year to assist Afghan security forces.

The U.S. military said earlier this month that it had met its goal of reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan to about 2,500. Senior U.S. commanders are skeptical of the Taliban's stated commitment to peace, though they have said they can accomplish their mission in Afghanistan at that troop level.

“As the footprint of U.S. agencies continues to shrink, it will become more important that the U.S. and other donors perform aggressive and effective oversight of its dollars and programs," said Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John F. Sopko.

Corruption is rampant among Afghan government ministries, driving a wedge between the government and much of the population, frustrating international donors, and contributing to a poverty level in the country of more than 72%, according to the World Bank.

Also, recent international aid agency reports said that more than half of Afghans are in dire need of assistance just to survive 2021. The relentless corruption has alienated most Afghans caught between a war and relentless poverty, despite billions of dollars in international aid. By the end of 2020, Afghanistan's unemployment rate was projected to rise to 37.9%, up from 23.9% in 2019, said the report.

Taliban representatives and the Afghan government earlier this month resumed peace talks in Qatar, the Gulf Arab state where the insurgents maintain an office. The stop-and-go talks are aimed at ending decades of conflict but frustration and fear have grown over the recent spike in violence, and both sides blame one another.

U.S. airstrikes increased in the last quarter of 2020 as U.S. forces provided defensive support to Afghan security forces, according to the U.S. military. It reiterated that since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, U.S. forces have ceased offensive strikes against the Taliban.

The White House said that President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told his Afghan counterpart in a phone call last week that the new administration will “review” the February agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban.

Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said last week that the U.S. stands by its commitment under the deal for a full troop withdrawal, but the agreement also calls for the Taliban to cut ties with al-Qaida and reduce violence.

The authorized goal strength of Afghan defense forces has been adjusted downward to 208,000 personnel, the SIGAR report said. It had been roughly 227,000 for many years.

Afghan special forces conducted the highest number of ground operations in the last quarter of 2020 in more than a year, NATO said. The 1,152 ground operations were nearly double the number conducted during the same period last year, reflecting a 4% increase compared to the previous quarter.