Obama-era cuts to U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan caused "critical shortfalls" among military personnel and has increased risks to American-led forces operating in the country, according to a Pentagon report released Tuesday.
The Defense Department told Congress that the drawdown of some 1,400 U.S. troops last year presented "moderate to moderate-high" risks to the mission over the past six months. Defense officials said Afghanistan is "at a critical point" in the 16-year war, assessing 2017 as a year of "setting conditions to build momentum."
The report, presented to lawmakers twice a year, arrives as the White House considers the deployment of up to 5,000 additional military personnel in an attempt to break a months-long stalemate. The United States currently maintains roughly 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, down from 9,800 in 2016.
Though Afghan security forces took over the lead for combat operations in 2014, they have struggled to beat back a resurgent Taliban and remain reliant on U.S. and NATO military support, the Pentagon said.
Local troops have proven effective at leading clearing missions to remove all enemy forces from specific territories and have been able to maintain government control over urban areas. The nation's countryside has proven more difficult, with the Taliban successfully taking control of some rural regions after the Afghan military failed to consolidate gains and establish an enduring security presence.
Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, said the exploitation of ungoverned territory outside of Afghanistan by terrorists is the "single greatest external factor" that could lead to a coalition defeat.
"External sanctuary hampers efforts to bring Afghan Taliban senior leadership to the negotiating table and allows space for terrorist groups … to plan coordinated operations against U.S. and coalition forces, the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense Security Force], and civilians," the report said. "External sanctuary allows the Afghan Taliban to rest, refit, and regenerate, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence."
The threat is particularly pervasive along the border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban has long found haven along the mountainous divide. The two countries are home to as many as 20 terrorist groups, the highest concentration of militant groups in the world, posing a pervasive threat to Afghanistan's stability.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced in March he planned to double the number of special forces to 34,000 troops as part of a new strategy to reinforce units weakened by persistent attacks from the Taliban and militant groups such as the Islamic State. Ghani has also begun using government funds to support local security forces, called the National Uprising Forces, to maintain a military presence in cleared rural areas.
While key to the country's security efforts, the Pentagon warned these forces "have limited accountability and a disregard for human rights, and they can exacerbate tribal and ethnic tensions if not properly monitored."
Plans to "modify the force structure" of the ANDSF and "develop it into a more agile and lethal force" are underway, the report said, but Afghanistan will face another tough year degrading the Taliban and ISIS while attempting to posture itself as a more offensive force for 2018.