PUL-I-KUMRI, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents killed so many Afghan security forces in 2016, an average of 22 a day, that by the following year the Afghan and American governments decided to keep battlefield death tolls secret.
It’s much worse now. The daily fatalities among Afghan soldiers and policemen were more than double that last week: roughly 57 a day.
Seventeen years after the United States went to war in Afghanistan, the Taliban is gaining momentum, seizing territory, and killing Afghan security forces in record numbers.
Last week was especially bad, with more than 400 killed, according to an account by diplomats. But even the average numbers in recent months — from 30 to 40 a day, according to senior Afghan officials — represent a substantial upswing from two years ago and appear unsustainable in a country that has been shattered by decades of war.
The growing losses have made recruiting fresh soldiers more important than ever, but also harder than ever. Most days at the Afghan Army’s recruitment center in Helmand, the southern province that has seen the war’s worst fighting, there are only two or three applicants, said Abdul Qudous, the center’s head.
“Sometimes we don’t see any recruits for weeks,” he said. “People don’t want to join the army any more because the casualties are too high.”
This is not just a matter of lives lost, which reverberate through families already traumatized by decades of war. It is also a sign that the stalemate between the Taliban and government forces is tipping in the insurgents’ favor. Throughout this year, the Taliban have owned the initiative against government forces who have been spread thin and rooted to the defensive. The security forces have repeatedly had to call on the small American contingent here — and its considerable air power — to rescue them from trouble.
In a war of attrition, the momentum is all with the Taliban, who seem to have no trouble replenishing their forces.
As government forces fall, the Taliban’s battlefield victories have lowered morale and faith in the government, and made prospects of a peace deal even more remote.
“The Taliban don’t want peace, because they think they can win the war,” said the embattled governor of Baghlan Province, Abdul Hai Nimati, at his office here in Pul-i-Kumri. “If it goes on like this, they’re going to win.”
Appointed by President Ashraf Ghani, Mr. Nimati is a former jihadi commander who fought the Soviets and the Communist government during the 1980s and 1990s. “Back in those days, we had all the advantages of fighting a guerrilla war that the Taliban have now,” he said, almost wistfully. “We have to defend everywhere, and they can attack anywhere.”
The figure of 400 Afghan soldiers and police officers killed last week leaked out of a meeting last weekend between Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the new American military commander, and Western diplomats in Kabul, according to two of those present, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was meant to be off the record.
Asked about the meeting, the American military spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, did not specifically address the number killed last week, instead saying, “General Miller’s remarks are not accurately reflected by your sources’ recollection.” He added: “He was reflecting on Afghan sacrifice over a several-week period. He was relaying a sense of urgency to the team and encouraging focus on the mission.”
The quiet acknowledgment of higher casualties is coming at a time of alarm about the Taliban’s gains across Afghanistan. More districts than at any time since 2001 — including some provincial capitals — have fallen under threat or outright control by the insurgents over the past year.
The casualties have undermined morale among the Afghan police and military, whatever the actual numbers.
“Yesterday five people were killed and four wounded from our battalion, and no one helped them,” Pvt. Ahmad Javed, 23, whose unit is stationed in Baghlan Province, said Monday. “We never get reinforcements in time when the Taliban attack us, and our dead just lay on the scene. Because of that we lose our morale.”
When the Afghan National Army stopped disclosing data on battlefield losses, it also started withholding information on the attrition rate and recruitment. By early 2017, the army was already losing 2.9 percent of its forces monthly to attrition — which includes losses from casualties, desertions and failure to re-enlist. That meant more than a third of its force had to be replaced with new recruits each year.
With civilian work scarce and army jobs relatively well paying, the Afghan security forces previously were able to recruit 100,000 or more men annually. That is apparently no longer the case.
As of April, there were officially 314,000 members of the Afghan security forces, police and army — well short of their authorized strength of 352,000. The actual number of security force members is thought to be even less because of fraudulent reporting and unreported desertions.
Col. Mujtaba Khan Sadat, the head of recruitment in Badakhshan Province, said daily recruits there had dropped in recent months to from 15 to 20, half what they were a year before.
“Because of the increasing level of insecurity and high level of casualties, people are not joining the army as much,” he said. “Most of the young people are going to Turkey to find jobs instead.”
Although government officials have refused to divulge their own casualty figures, they readily provide numbers for Taliban militants they say they have killed. In August, according to official government reports, their forces claimed to kill 42 Taliban militants a day, 1,300 a month. In the year that ended in March, 13,600 insurgents were killed, said Najib Danish, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior Affairs. There was no independent confirmation of such figures.
[Read about how the American government misleads the public on Afghan war data.]
General Miller took over command of the American-led coalition in the aftermath of a particularly difficult month for Afghan forces. Taliban insurgents had recently overrun most of the strategic city of Ghazni for six days, until American Special Operations forces and air power helped wrest it back. The same week, three major military bases fell to the insurgents.
Known fatalities that week in August were fewer than 300, according to interviews with civilian and security officials at the local, district and provincial levels.
Last week’s death toll, the highest known toll of any week in the war so far, arrived without any single spectacular attack but was instead made up of numerous smaller attacks in at least 15 provinces and 23 districts, according to reporting by The New York Times.
Times reporters interviewed officials in every province where there were known military operations from Sept. 7 to 14, and according to those officials, a total of 193 government soldiers and police officers were killed in those 23 districts, less than half of the real total.
But official Afghan government policy forbids representatives for provincial and district police and government bodies from divulging casualty details to the news media, so many simply refuse to do so; that most likely accounts for the much higher figure the American military cited last week. The spokesman for one provincial police chief said his boss had recently ordered him to “only give information about our successes, not our failures.”
Afghan military casualties have been rising steadily since the international coalition began handing over responsibility for most security to the Afghans in preparation for the formal end of the American combat mission in 2014. About 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan.
The American military has encouraged the Afghans to shift from a largely checkpoint army — guarding facilities, roads and bases throughout the country — to one that concentrates some of its forces on guarding population centers, and the rest on offensive operations.
Throughout the height of this summer’s fighting season, however, the Afghan forces have remained largely defensive, with most offensive operations being conducted by the Taliban, military analysts here say. That has allowed the Taliban to mass large numbers of fighters against isolated outposts and bases, often with devastating results.
[Read about the Afghan Army’s last stand at Chinese Camp, where a whole company was lost.]
After last week’s debacle, Afghan officials said they had decided to go on the offensive. According to Ghafoor Ahmad Jawed, the new spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, “We have started on the offensive from Sept. 13.”
Governor Nimati said that disaster in the Baghlan-e-Markazi district was averted last week only after the American military sent Special Forces troops to fight alongside Afghan commandos, backed up by airstrikes. But as soon as the Americans and the commandos left, he said, Taliban forces immediately began filtering back in, and by the weekend the bases in the district were again in Taliban hands.
The Taliban have so far failed to accomplish their publicly stated goals of taking and holding cities and capturing entire provinces. But some provincial officials have expressed concern that could still happen this year, in Farah, Oruzgan or even here in Baghlan Province.
In Baghlan, Governor Nimati said: “There is a risk that even this province will collapse if we don’t get support. Until now, we have no reserve. Every man we have is fighting without any rest for 10 days now, and getting no sleep, and they’re tired.”
Follow Rod Nordland on Twitter: @rodnordland.
Reporting was contributed by Mujib Mashal, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi from Kabul; Najim Rahim from Pul-i-Kumri; Taimoor Shah from Kandahar; Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost; Mohammad Saber from Herat; Zabihullah Ghazi from Jalalabad; and an employee of The New York Times in Ghazni.
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