By Rod Nordland
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government’s control of its country declined late last year, in terms of both territory and population, according to a United States government report released Thursday.
The report, by the agency of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or Sigar, said that as of Oct. 31, the Afghan government controlled territory on which 63.5 percent of its population lived, a decrease of 1.7 percent from the previous quarter, while gains by the Taliban insurgency gave it control over territory that is home to 10.8 percent of the population.
The agency’s statistics are based on data provided by the American military under a mandate to report to Congress quarterly.
In addition, the Afghan government lost control of seven more districts during the last quarter, meaning that only 53.8 percent of districts were “controlled or influenced” by the government, while 12.3 percent of the districts were under insurgent control or influence and 33.9 percent of districts were contested. Afghanistan’s 407 districts are the basic unit of local governance.
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, whose agency issued the report, said in an interview, “It’s like moving the goal posts, something we’ve seen a lot of over the last few years.”
In response to the report, the American military said that such metrics, which have been compiled quarterly for many years, were no longer important and might be based on faulty analysis.
“Measures of population control are not indicative of effectiveness of the South Asia strategy or of progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan, particularly in the wake of the appointment of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation (SRAR) Zalmay Khalilzad,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
The military also said there was “uncertainty” and “subjectivity” in the data used to analyze population control.
Mr. Sopko said that was the first time the military had criticized its own data on population control, which he said appeared to be a response to the increasingly pessimistic picture of government control.
Mr. Khalilzad has been leading talks with the Taliban, and last week reached a preliminary agreement with them on a framework that would call for American troop withdrawal in exchange for assurances that terrorists would not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.
The latest inspector general’s report also expressed concern at the declining size of the Afghan security forces, which it said had 3,635 fewer personnel compared with the previous quarter. With a total of 308,693 personnel, the security forces are at 87.7 percent of their authorized strength, the report said, the lowest since the Afghan government took over full responsibility for the country’s security in January 2015.
The attrition was due to desertions, failure to re-enlist and “ghost” soldiers who remain on the payroll, as well as casualties.
President Ashraf Ghani said this month that 45,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers had died since he took office in September 2014. During that same period, he said, 72 American or coalition soldiers were killed. American military leaders had described Afghan losses as “not sustainable” when they were only half of what they are currently.
Afghan officials say they are killing equal or greater numbers of Taliban militants, but there is little hard evidence to back up such claims.
The quarterly compilation of data on population and territorial control has long been controversial among experts on Afghanistan, who view the inspector general’s accounts from the American military as too optimistic. Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that the military’s statistics on district control are lumped into categories that give little real sense of who is in charge.
His own analysis in The Long War Journal has the Afghan government controlling 143 of the country’s districts (35 percent) and the insurgents 53 districts (13 percent), with 202 districts contested (49.6 percent).
“USFOR-A’s claim that control is not an important factor is absurd on its face,” Mr. Roggio said, using the acronym for the American military in Afghanistan. “The Taliban use areas under its influence to raise taxes, produce opium, recruit and train fighters, and stage attacks on areas under government control.”
In a separate report released Tuesday, the advocacy group Transparency International found that Afghanistan was still among the 10 most corrupt countries in the world, despite pledges by the current government to address the issue.
“The result has been diminishing government legitimacy and trust among Afghans and donor fatigue,” said Nadia Bazidwal, a board member from the group’s Afghan office.