Fatalities soar for Afghan forces as govt loses ground to Taliban

Afghan security forces, beset by killings, desertions and under intense pressure, have been struggling to beat back insurgents since US-led NATO troops ended their combat mission in December 2014 (AFP Photo/AREF KARIMI) (AFP/File)

The death rate among Afghan troops and police soared last year as the Kabul government's overall control of the country declined significantly, an official US watchdog said in a report Wednesday.

The grim new statistics paint a picture of a beleaguered nation still in the grip of a security crisis, despite many years and billions of dollars spent building up Afghanistan's army and police.

According to the US government's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), 6,785 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed between January 1 and November 12, with another 11,777 wounded.

That is an increase of about 35 percent from all of 2015, when some 5,000 security forces were killed. The Afghan forces have a total of nearly 316,000 men, according to SIGAR.

"We are very concerned," said General Charles Cleveland, spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

He blamed "poor leadership" for the casualties as well as corruption, though he noted many officials have been removed at all levels.

"Afghan forces continue to be incredibly resilient and they made success in achieving their main goals, such as securing the populated areas," he added, saying there had been progress but it would take years.

Afghan police and army units in 2015 took over from NATO the task of providing security for the country.

Their first year was something of a disaster, the nadir coming when the regional capital Kunduz in northern Afghanistan was briefly captured by the Taliban.

US and NATO officials had been hoping the Afghans would fare better in 2016, but clearly the security situation remains perilous.

The Pentagon, however, insists the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are improving and points to successful efforts to repel Taliban attacks on regional capitals.

- Losing their grip -

Most of the fatalities among the ANDSF came from "direct-fire" assaults, meaning local troops were directly attacked by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, instead of dying in roadside bomb and mine blasts.

In addition to the high death rate in the ANDSF, the report found that the number of Afghan districts under insurgent control or influence is increasing.

US Forces Afghanistan reported that 57.2 percent of the country's 407 districts were under Afghan government control or influence as of November 15, the report states.

That marks a drop from the 63.4 percent reported in late August, and a nearly 15-point decline since November 2015.

A Western observer who has lived in Afghanistan for years told AFP that the provinces under Taliban control could ultimately split from those held by the Kabul government.

"Everybody here thinks this country will collapse in a matter of two or three years," he said.

The report also found civilian casualties remain high.

According to a UN body, there were 8,397 conflict-related civilian casualties between January 1 and September 30, a slight drop compared to the same period in 2015.

The report also cites an Asia Foundation survey last year that found only 29.3 percent of respondents nationwide felt their country was moving in the right direction, down from 36.7 percent in 2015.

"This represents the lowest level of optimism recorded since the survey began in 2004," the SIGAR report notes.

The Taliban have been especially active in Helmand province -- a global center for opium production, which is on the rise.

And Afghanistan has long grappled with government corruption and embezzlement.