WASHINGTON — Violence in Afghanistan is on the rise, according to a new Pentagon report to Congress that says the Taliban was emboldened by the reduced U.S. military role and can be expected to build momentum from their 2015 attack strategy.
The number of effective insurgent attacks rose this year, causing increased casualties among Afghan security forces, the report said. While Afghan forces have demonstrated a will to fight and to learn from their battlefield mistakes, the report said the Taliban's resilience has made security fragile in key areas and at risk of deteriorating in others.
Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that it was "probably the most depressing assessment" of the direction in which the country is headed that he has heard in a "long, long time."
"We're certainly not in a positive trajectory right now in Afghanistan," Corker said. "In fact, I would say currently, my assessment would be that it's a very negative trajectory."
The Pentagon report, the latest in a regular series of Pentagon war updates required by Congress, also said the Taliban-led insurgency has been emboldened by the U.S. transition from direct combat operations to a train-and-advise role.
"As a result, the Taliban will continue to test the (Afghan forces) aggressively in 2016," it said.
The U.S. now has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, some of which are involved in counterterrorism missions.
In October, President Barack Obama announced that he would keep troops levels steady through most of next year. By the end of 2016, rather than draw down to a Kabul-only U.S. military presence of about 1,000 troops as previously planned, Obama decided the U.S. will maintain 5,500 troops in Kabul and Bagram. Tuesday's report said Obama's decision reflects the need to give Afghans more time to develop a credible army.
"The resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people," the report said.
The report covers the second half of 2015, which is the first year that Afghan forces have fought without U.S. troops alongside them on the battlefield. The Afghans largely stood their ground, or managed to recover territory they temporarily conceded, but the report credited the Taliban with "improving their ability to find and exploit" Afghan vulnerabilities. The Taliban also are using the Afghan-Pakistan border as sanctuary, it said.
To illustrate the point that security conditions are still unsatisfactory, the report said the number of casualty-causing Taliban attacks from January through November rose by about 4 percent over the comparable period in 2014. The number hovered around 1,000 per month during the year before decreasing in September.
The report also said al-Qaida, which used Afghanistan as a base from which to launch the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has a "sustained presence" in eastern and northeastern Afghanistan and remains a threat to the United States. It did not estimate how many al-Qaida fighters are in the country.
Other problems that have persisted in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001 are still unsolved, the report said. Revenue from opium trafficking, for example, continues to sustain the insurgency and Afghan criminal networks. The report cited an increase in extortion and kidnappings by low-level criminal networks.
Despite years of U.S. efforts to build an effective Afghan army and police, security is still threatened by a host of insurgent and extremist networks. The report said these include the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and to a lesser extent al-Qaida as well as an Islamic State affiliate that is openly fighting with the Taliban for establishment of a safe haven.
In an Associated Press interview Tuesday in Kabul, Gen. John F. Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan, said "foreign fighters" from Syria and Iraq who are supporters of the Islamic State are trying to establish a base in the eastern city of Jalalabad. He said there also are indications that these IS supporters in Nangarhar province are trying to consolidate links with Islamic State leadership in Syria and Iraq.
The biggest setback during the period covered by the Pentagon report was the Taliban's brief takeover of the northern city of Kunduz, which Afghan forces abandoned abruptly in late September but recaptured several days later with U.S. military help.
It was during the battle for control of Kunduz that a U.S. AC-130 gunship repeatedly attacked a hospital run by the international medical charity, Doctors Without Borders, which says 42 patients and others were killed in the assault. The U.S. military has said the attack was a mistake caused by a combination of human error, technical faults and other circumstances.