The Trump administration's new Afghanistan strategy has made little progress against the Taliban insurgency since August, and the country remains a "dangerous and volatile" place after 17 years of war, a government watchdog report says.
The conclusion by three U.S. agency watchdogs late on May 21 contrasted with assertions by the Pentagon that Afghan forces, with U.S. support, have "turned the corner" and captured momentum in the war against the Taliban.
The report to Congress by the inspectors-general of the Pentagon, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development, in seeing "few signs of progress" in the three months ended on March 31, cited a series of deadly attacks by the Taliban and other militant groups.
"The Taliban and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan each launched high-profile attacks in Kabul that killed hundreds," the report noted.
"The Taliban continued to hold territory and launched devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul and across the country," it said.
On May 21, the Taliban warned Kabul residents that it is planning more attacks in the Afghan capital and residents should avoid "military centers" to minimize civilian casualties.
The Trump administration, in launching a new war strategy in August, said it was stepping up the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban in hopes that the increased use of force would convince the Taliban it cannot win the war and force it to join peace negotiations.
But the inspectors-general said that "there was little publicly available evidence that the actions to increase pressure on the Taliban were having a significant impact."
In February, the Afghan government offered to start a reconciliation process with the Taliban with no preconditions, but the militant group spurned the offer.
The report also found no "significant" gains in territory by U.S. and Afghan forces, despite the White House strategy's goal to increase the territory under government control to 80 percent from 64 percent through intensified air strikes and ground operations.
Beyond Afghanistan, the report said the White House's efforts to force Pakistan to take action against militants who launch attacks on Afghanistan from its territory also have not borne fruit.
"Despite suspending between $1.5 billion and $2 billion in planned security aid to Pakistan, that country did not take any significant action to eliminate terrorist safe havens," it said.
The report was also doubtful about progress being made through parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, which were originally scheduled for July and have been postponed until October.
It questioned the extent to which balloting amid Taliban resistance will promote peace.
"Given that the Taliban views the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet, it is unclear how U.S.-supported elections would increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the eyes of the Taliban and would pressure the militants to reconcile," the report said.
The watchdog report also cast doubt on a decision to send a new set of military advisers this year to work with Afghan forces closer to the front lines.
It said this move, combined with stepped-up Afghan offensives against the Taliban, "further raises the risk of civilian casualties, insider attacks, U.S. casualties, and other conflict-related violence."
The United States has about 15,000 support troops in Afghanistan who provide military assistance but are not involved directly in combat.
Asked about the report's grim assessment, a Pentagon spokesman, Army Colonel Rob Manning, said officials believed "chaos and progress can coexist" in Afghanistan. "That's exactly what we feel is happening in Afghanistan," he said.
Manning said the Afghan armed forces are making important strides. He cited as an example the support that the Afghan air force provided in an offensive undertaken in Farah province in recent days to defeat Taliban forces that had attacked the provincial capital near Iran and overrun several security checkpoints.
Manning also said additional U.S. military advisory units had arrived in Farah to assist Afghan forces. He said the Afghan government was now in full control of Farah.
The inspectors'-general report agreed that Afghan security forces were improving, but found they had made minimal progress toward securing the population.
It also said the number of Afghan fighting forces had continued to decline, raising concerns about their effectiveness. The number of active-duty Afghan troops stood at 313,728 at the end of January, it said, down from 331,708 a year earlier.
The actual number of troops is 11 percent below the target level of 352,000, a gap that reflects difficulties in keeping Afghan soldiers in uniform as well as high Afghan casualty rates, the report said.