The latest report from the federal government's Afghanistan watchdog paints a picture of increased violence and bloodshed in the war-torn nation and suggests that preventing the Taliban and other insurgents from increasing their control of the countryside will continue to be a "challenge" for Afghan security forces.
The quarterly report, issued Monday by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), says the Afghan forces' fight against the Taliban has become increasingly bloody, with casualties "shockingly high" 16 years after the first U.S. forces arrived in the country.
According to the report, the death tolls for both civilians and members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are the highest recorded since the United Nations Assistance Mission began reporting them in 2009.
In the first six weeks of 2017 alone, SIGAR said, 807 security forces personnel were killed by the Taliban and other insurgent forces, while mass casualty attacks against civilian targets also increased. The report cited an attack that killed 50 people at the Afghanistan's largest military hospital on March 8 and another that killed two investigators from the Major Crimes Task Force on April 10.
Overall, the report says, "conflict-related civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose to 11,418 in 2016," again a record.
The crisis extends beyond the dead and wounded, with 660,000 Afghan citizens fleeing their homes in 2016 to avoid violence. That, too, was a record and a 40 percent increase over 2015.
All the numbers reflect increased violence across the country. And while the U.S. military command in Afghanistan says the territory controlled by the central government increased to nearly 60 percent of the country's 407 districts, the report notes that "preventing insurgents from increasing their control or influence of districts continues to be a challenge for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF)."
The first U.S. combat death of 2017 in Afghanistan occurred on April 8. An Army Special Forces soldier was killed while conducting counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, which is now active inside the country.
Afghanistan is troubled not just by Islamic extremist violence, the report adds. Growth — and consumption — of heroin is also on the rise, and the insurgents often benefit.
"Narcotics traffickers provide weapons, funding, and material support to the insurgency in exchange for protection, while insurgent leaders traffic drugs to finance their operations," said the report.
Afghanistan's potential opium production was about 4,800 metric tons in 2016 alone, according to a new survey carried out by the United Nations. More troubling, perhaps, is that drug use among Afghan women and children is among the highest documented worldwide, with 30.6 percent of households testing positive for some form of illicit drug.