The Afghan government lost control of 2 percent of its territory this summer, as Taliban insurgents have continued to launch attacks in an ongoing conflict that top officials describe as a "stalemate."
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released its quarterly report to Congress over the weekend, naming the Taliban insurgency as the "most immediate challenge" to ongoing U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn country.
The report, citing figures from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, states that the Afghan government controlled or influenced approximately 63.4 percent of Afghanistan's districts as of August 28, over two percent less than the 65.6 percent it controlled three months earlier.
The Taliban wields the most substantial power in Helmand province, where 21 percent of districts are either controlled or influenced by insurgents.
The Afghan government controls 258 of the country's 407 districts, while insurgents hold 33 districts and 116 districts are contested.
The special inspector general report preceded the publication of a New York Times article outlining how Taliban fighters have gained ground in Helmand, Kunduz, and Uruzgan provinces over the last week as Afghan forces have surrendered their posts.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, have recently described the conflict between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents as a "stalemate."
Nicholson characterized this positively during a September briefing at the Pentagon, telling reporters that it shows "the majority of the population is under the control of the government forces." He noted that the Taliban is "primarily in more rural areas that have less impact on the future of the country."
However, the special inspector general report presents "worrisome facts" that could indicate the security situation is an "eroding stalemate," in the words of an unnamed administration official quoted in an October 14 Washington Post report.
"Afghan army and police numbers remain below authorized-strength goals," the special inspector general wrote. "The security forces suffer from high levels of attrition, the United States lacks visibility into most Afghan units' actual levels of training and effectiveness, the security forces have questionable abilities to sustain and maintain units and materiel, and the security forces continue to deploy commando and other highly skilled units on missions that should be undertaken by regular units."
The U.S. government has spent billions of dollars supporting Afghan forces and rebuilding infrastructure in Afghanistan. While President Obama marked the end of combat operations in Afghanistan at the start of 2015, thousands of American and allied troops have remained in the country to train, advise, and assist local forces fighting the Taliban.
Military leaders have recently expressed concerns about capability gaps in the Afghan forces and high casualties that have hindered the U.S.-led mission in the country.
"They have taken far more casualties than we are comfortable with and they still have capability gaps in their special operations capabilities and their aviation enterprise and intelligence, logistics, and of course probably at the minister of defense, minister of interior level," Dunford said during congressional testimony last month.
"Our focus right now is to further develop those capabilities so we can mitigate casualties that they are suffering, which is a grave concern as well as some tactical setbacks that they have had," he said.
According to the new report, the force strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces stood at 317,709 in July, a decrease of 178 personnel from the same period last year. Both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are smaller than their authorized force strengths. As of August, the 12-month attrition rate for the Afghan National Army was 33.5 percent, an increase from the 28 percent attrition rate from the previous year.
Obama was forced to decelerate his planned withdrawal from Afghanistan in July as the Taliban made gains, announcing that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain in the country through the end of this year instead of the planned 5,500.
Data released by the United Nations last year demonstrated that the Taliban had seized more territory in Afghanistan than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Amid force reductions in U.S. and allied troops, Taliban fighters have continued to launch attacks on key population centers, such as the Helmand Province's capital of Lashkar Gah. The United Nations tallied nearly 6,000 "security incidents" in Afghanistan between May and August, a slight increase over the number that took place during the same period last year.
According to the special inspector general, poverty, unemployment, underemployment, violence, outmigration, and internal displacement all increased during the reporting period, which spanned July and September of this year.
"The most immediate challenge to the U.S. reconstruction effort, and to the viability of the Afghan nation-state, remains the armed insurgency pursued by the Taliban and other factions," the special inspector general wrote.
"The less-dramatic and slower-acting, but still existential, threat is the corroding effect of corruption, which diverts money from vital purposes, undermines security and public services, saps the economy, erodes public trust and support, and in varied ways nourishes the insurgency," the report states.