WASHINGTON -- With the United States accelerating its withdrawal from Afghanistan after helping to establish a new unity government there, a congressionally created watchdog warned this week that despite the signs of progress, Afghanistan is more unstable than ever: Insurgent attacks are on the rise, funded by an under-investigated and thriving opium-based economy, and the competence of the Afghan security forces is in doubt.
The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released on Thursday, illustrates the precarious situation remaining in Afghanistan. As the U.S. looks to wrap up its longest-running military engagement, the report warns that America cannot stop paying attention to Kabul just yet.
Counternarcotics efforts, the report says, have almost completely “fallen off the agenda” as part of U.S. and international reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, which is far and away the world's leading supplier of opium. This means that multiple insurgencies -- including that led by the Taliban, the extremist group the U.S. deposed when it marched into Afghanistan -- continue to prosper by selling illegal opium poppy crops and drugs like heroin and morphine.
“As long as insurgent commanders are able to fund themselves through the opium trade, and as long as corrupt officials profit from the illicit economy, there may be few incentives for making peace in some areas of the country,” SIGAR wrote.
The U.S.’s casual approach to counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan was apparent from the outset of reconstruction, foreign affairs analysts told The Huffington Post. Defense strategies and counterterror measures took precedence. The former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, exacerbated the crisis by turning a blind eye to the illicit drug trade.
“This report hits the nail right on the head about the inadequacy of our efforts and the unlikelihood of greater success coming up,” said Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who served on the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011. “The report doesn’t come right out and say it, but it was an open secret that Karzai wasn’t that interested in opium eradication."
Tiefer suggested that "the one bright sign" in the Afghan situation is the recent election of President Ashraf Ghani, who "might be” a supporter of counternarcotics efforts.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, said the problem of opium poppy sales could have major implications for Afghanistan's future stability. Opium grown in Afghanistan is a concern far beyond its borders, he noted. To deal with the illicit trade, Nawaz said, the new Afghan government will have to work with regional actors like Russia, Iran and Pakistan, which previously had their own ambitions in Afghanistan and may seek to flex their muscles as the U.S. presence dwindles.
Overall, Nawaz said, this week's report is "more upbeat" than previous SIGAR statements, largely because of its support for the new unity government in Kabul. The report points to the government's decision to sign both a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which preserves an American military force in Afghanistan through 2015, and a status-of-forces agreement with NATO.
But even if Ghani, backed by U.S. and international support, is able to effectively target the opium trade, it likely has already helped the Taliban and other insurgents make gains, the report says. Afghanistan has seen an alarming increase in insurgency-related violence, according to the report, with last quarter marking the highest number of attacks since 2011 and the second highest since the Taliban’s fall in 2001.
The report expresses concern over the Afghan National Security Forces' ability to deal with the rebels. It also criticizes the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-organized coalition in Afghanistan, for taking the unprecedented step of classifying an assessment of the Afghan force's fighting capabilities. The NATO coalition's past assessments, released periodically to the public over the last nine years, have been a key means of assessing whether the $61.5 billion in U.S. aid to the Afghan army and police was put to good use.
“[The] classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort,” the report writes. “Its inexplicable classification now and its disappearance from public view does a disservice to the interest of informed national discussion.”
The report notes that the NATO coalition cited security concerns for its decision to classify the executive summary of its assessment. But the report adds that "there is no indication that the public release of aggregated data on [Afghan force] capabilities has or could deliver any tactical benefit to Afghan insurgents."
The Atlantic Council's Nawaz said he understood the need for some classification because of security constraints in active battle zones, which include much of Afghanistan.
But Tiefer warned that the NATO coalition's decision may indicate longer-term security risks.
“They’re not classifying happy, positive, upbeat figures. They don’t classify that kind of figures,” Tiefer said. “Look how the Iraqi forces collapsed when ISIS moved on them. And you get an idea what might happen to the Afghan national forces when the U.S. is gone and the Taliban move on them. They want to hide that, but it’s like trying to hide a mountain under a carpet.”
The watchdog's report also draws attention to what may be the most pressing worry for the new Afghan government: its inability to pay government workers.
That problem, at least, may be solved soon. Though the report says that Kabul had reached out for international help in September but had yet to send the U.S. State Department a formal request for assistance backed up with sufficient data, a State Department official confirmed to The Huffington Post on Friday that such a request had been received.
"Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal wrote to the United States and other donors on October 17 to officially request financial assistance to address the government’s current fiscal shortfall," the U.S. official said.