The Taliban's all-out offensive across Afghanistan increasingly poses an "existential crisis" for the government in Kabul amid the accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces scheduled to be completed by the end of next month, a watchdog report said on July 29.
In the quarterly report for Congress, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) notes that, instead of jump-starting peace talks with the Kabul government, the agreement between Washington and the Taliban concluded in February 2020 in Qatar unleashed a militant offensive that caught government forces unprepared and increased the number of civilian deaths.
The report said Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces spiked from 6,700 in the three months leading up to the agreement to 13,242 in the September-November 2020 period.
Lately, the militants have been taking dozens of districts and border crossings around Afghanistan while several rounds of peace talks with the Afghan government in Qatar have failed to make any substantive progress.
Amid stalled negotiations, the U.S. military has continued to steadily pull out troops to a current level of only several hundred, with an August 31 deadline for full withdrawal.
Quoting data from the U.S.-NATO joint force in Afghanistan, SIGAR said in the report that the uptick in fighting has caused a spike in civilian deaths as well, from 510 people killed and 709 wounded in the first three months of last year, to 1,058 deaths and 1,959 wounded in the third quarter that year.
The latest data, for April and May this year, showed 705 civilian deaths and 1,330 casualties, the SIGAR report said.
"The overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn't addressed and reversed," said John Sopko, the special inspector general.
The report said that the Afghan security forces "appeared surprised and unready" and are now on their "back foot" in the face of an increasingly intense militant offensive.
"Particularly concerning was the speed and ease with which the Taliban seemingly wrested control of districts in Afghanistan's northern provinces, once a bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment," it said.
The report also noted that the Afghan Air Force, viewed as one of the few remaining advantages of the Kabul government against the Taliban, is increasingly overstretched.
Until now, the U.S. military has provided massive air support to Afghan security forces in the fight against the Taliban.
But as the U.S. withdrawal nears completion, all Afghan aircraft and crew are increasingly "overtasked" due to increased requests for air support, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and resupply missions.
The report said all Afghan aircraft were operating at 25 percent over their recommended scheduled maintenance intervals, with five out of seven aircraft experiencing decreases in readiness in June alone.
SIGAR also said that most regular Afghan troops refuse to go on missions without the support of the army's better trained and equipped special forces.