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WASHINGTON: Historically, the number of districts controlled or influenced by the Afghan government has been declining since 2009 while the number controlled or influenced by the militants has been rising, said an official US report released on Tuesday.

“A fact that should cause even more concern [is] about its disappearance from public disclosure and discussion,” says John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in his report to the US Congress.

Mr Sopko’s office, better known by its acronym SIGAR, was set up in 2008, under a congressional mandate, and in 2009, it began sending quarterly reports to Congress on the US involvement in Afghanistan.

This quarter, the US Department of Defence (DOD) instructed SIGAR not to release to the public data on the number of districts, and the population living in them, controlled or influenced by the Afghan government or by the insurgents, or contested by both.

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“This worrisome development comes as DOD this quarter, for the first time since 2009, also classified the exact strength figures for most Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), another vital measure of ANDSF reconstruction,” Mr Sopko wrote.

For the second consecutive quarter, DOD also classified or otherwise restricted information SIGAR had previously reported, including such fundamental aspects of ANDSF performance as casualties, attrition, and most capability assessments.

In its latest report to Congress, SIGAR also noted that the expanded authorities the Trump administration provided to US forces in Afghanistan in its new Afghan strategy, announced in August, have resulted in a significant uptick in US air strikes and special operations against the insurgency.

In October 2017, the US dropped 653 munitions in Afghanistan, a record high since 2012 and a more than threefold increase from October 2016.

But “these actions have yet to increase the Afghan government’s control over its population,” the report warned. In November 2017, Gen John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said in a press briefing that 64 per cent of the Afghan population was under government control or influence, 12 per cent are under insurgent control or influence, and the remaining 24 per cent are in contested areas. The goal of the Afghan government is to control 80 per cent of its population within the next two years.

SIGAR noted that since August, the United States also has increased its air strikes inside Afghanistan, which are mostly carried out in support of the Afghan security forces. In this campaign, Afghan security forces are using A-29 aircraft, with support from US Air Force B-52s, F/A-18s, and other aircraft, including the A-10 Thunderbolts and F-22 Raptors.

“One danger of a sustained air campaign is civilian casualties, which could erode support for the Afghan government and potentially increase support for the insurgency,” the report warned.

It also quoted from a recent United Nations report, estimating over 8,000 civilian casualties between January 1 and September 30, 2017.

“October and November were two of the deadliest months for civilians,” the report added.

Related: Taliban and IS create perfect storm of bloodshed in Kabul

Press reports stated that several civilians were killed during the November bombings. The authorities used the F-22, one of the “most advanced fighter aircraft” because of its ability to deliver munitions precisely, including 250-pound bombs to minimise collateral damage.

The report noted that giving new powers to the US forces to combat the insurgents has also led to an increase in US casualties. In the first 11 months of last year, 11 US service personnel were killed in Afghanistan, which is twice the number killed in action in the same periods in 2015 and 2016.

SIGAR also reported that the ANDSF had experienced a decrease in casualties from insider attacks since 2016. As of October 31, 2017, insider attacks killed 102 ANDSF personnel and wounded 53, a decrease of 49 personnel killed and 26 wounded compared to the same period in 2016.

However, American casualties from insider attacks have increased over the last two years. As of Oct 31, three US military personnel were killed and 11 wounded in three of 2017’s six green-on-blue attacks.

SIGAR said that despite $8.7 billion in US aid for counternarcotics efforts, opium production was up 87 per cent in the last year in Afghanistan and land under opium cultivation was 63 per cent, both all-time highs.

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2018