U.S. Blocking Crucial Wartime Information on Afghanistan While Pushing for Peace With Taliban

Published May 1st, 2019 - 12:25 GMT
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U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (AFP/FILE)

While promising peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban are underway in Qatar, actually knowing the situation on the ground has gotten significantly harder. 


The U.S. military informed a leading government watchdog that it will stop providing data regarding district-level territorial control of the country, which is currently divided between the fledgling Afghanistan government and the Taliban. The data has been widely used to gauge the momentum of the war.

At the same time, U.S. and Taliban officials have met in Qatar to continue peace negotiations, which appear to center on the inclusion of the Afghan government, which the Taliban views as an extension of the U.S., and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump has prioritized bringing an end to American involvement in Afghanistan, holding regular peace talks with the Taliban since Oct 2018. His administration has also sought to limit the flow of information streaming from conflict zones in which the U.S. is involved.


Censoring Information on a Stalling War

Map of district-level control of Afghanistan (FDD Long War Journal; grey = undetermined or government, red = contested, black = Taliban)


Inside an April 30 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a government watchdog, lied a bombshell regarding the war in Afghanistan. 

“This quarter, the U.S.-commanded NATO Resolute Support (RS) mission in Afghanistan formally notified SIGAR that it is no longer assessing district-level insurgent or government control or influence,” the report said.

“The RS mission said the district-level stability assessments were ‘of limited decision-making value to the [RS] Commander.’ RS added that there is currently no other product or forum through which district-level control data is communicated to the command.”

The data related to district-level control has been relied on by analysts and journalists alike to understand who has the momentum in the war. Around two years ago, the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, called this data the “most telling” of the war’s progress.

John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, lamented the decision to stop releasing the data, saying “I don’t think it makes sense.”

“The Afghan people know which districts are controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows it. The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people who are paying for all of this, and that’s the American taxpayer,” he added.
 

“The Afghan people know which districts are controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows it. The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people who are paying for all of this, and that’s the American taxpayer,” he added.

What little publicly available information still available reveals the Taliban getting deadlier and the conflict ramping up to new highs. According to SIGAR, the “security situation in Afghanistan—enemy-initiated attacks, general ANDSF casualty trends, and security incidents—show that Afghanistan experienced heightened insecurity over the winter months while the United States and the Taliban held talks in Qatar, thus far without the participation of the Afghan government.”

For much of the war, the Taliban has been making a steady comeback since 2001, gaining much of the country’s rural landscape.

By the beginning of 2019, the Taliban and government had almost evenly split both the land and population evenly among each other, according to the last released data on district-level control. The district-level control data came to reflect this fact. Withholding it may be a way to obscure the government and U.S. forces' consistent losses.

The Taliban have not been able to capture and hold the country’s major cities, while the government has proven unable to hold onto its remote areas.

The war has stalled into a geopolitical stalemate. In this sense, knowing who controls which district may be less relevant than knowing which side is losing the subtler war of attrition in which the war has devolved.

Deadly violence has increased in the last few years: the war in Afghanistan was judged to be the world’s most lethal conflict in 2018. In 2019, multiple offenses by both sides, plus massive airstrikes, have already killed hundreds.

Both sides announced Spring offensives, a strategic move that has become customary in the war, with Spring offensive campaigns being announced virtually every year in April or May. In practical terms, this means the violence will escalate, even though the U.S. and Taliban officials meet in Qatar.

 

Potentially Promising Peace Talks 

Afghan Loya Jirga meets in Kabul in April 2019 (AFP/STR)

Even as violence increases and the ability to monitor the war’s progress diminishes, peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban are underway.

The war in Afghanistan has gone on for nearly 20 years, and in that time, its never-ending nature has become normalized even as the violence itself has only gotten worse. In this context, the fact that peace talks have become a regular fixture is welcome news. 

The current talks in Doha, Qatar are the sixth round of negotiations held since Oct 2018.

Under the former president Barack Obama and now Trump, the U.S. has sought to negotiate the end of the war with the Taliban, although current talks have sidelined the Afghan government. Both Trump and Obama campaigned against U.S entanglement in wars that have no definite end.
 

Under the former president Barack Obama and now Trump, the U.S. has sought to negotiate the end of the war with the Taliban, although current talks have sidelined the Afghan government. Both Trump and Obama campaigned against U.S entanglement in wars that have no definite end.

Since 2018, talks appear to have been centered around the terms of the U.S.’ military withdrawal from the country, and the post-war political balance between the government and the Taliban. If the U.S. militarily withdraws and the Taliban begin direct political talks with the government, the conflict would become more locally managed.

Omar Daudzai, a special envoy for peace appointed by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, said that while he welcomes the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, the government should have a role in the peace talks. Ghani has assembled a massive council, called a Loya Jirga, comprised of 3,200 tribal and civil society leaders in order to secure a comprehensive local approach to Taliban peace talks.

 “The Loya Jirga is the rational and logical start of the peace talks,” Daudzai told reporters.

The Taliban and a delegation from Afghanistan, including some representatives from the government, are scheduled to meet in Qatar for an initial, groundbreaking meeting.

Even though ending the war is paramount, building peace on a shaky foundation could lead to more violence, John Sopko of SIGAR argued in the watchdog’s report.

"No matter how welcome peace would be, it can carry with it the seeds of unintended and unforeseen consequences," Sopko wrote.

Peace without reconciliation or a plan for integrating the Taliban could simply make future conflict unavoidable. Failing to account for the country’s corruption and flourishing narcotics trade could also spoil any potential peace deal, as the profit motive for conflict remains.

“An opportunity for peace exists,” Sopko said.

But “how it is embraced, shaped, and nurtured will determine if Afghanistan is to continue progressing in economic and social development, and avoid new conflicts that might result in its once again becoming a danger to the international community.”


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