- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 31, 2016

Amid growing concern in Congress about President Obama’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the prospects are fading for his goal of wrapping up U.S. military involvement by the time he leaves office.

Violence is on the rise, the Taliban are staging new offensives, the Islamic State group is angling for a foothold and peace prospects are dim. Afghanistan remains a danger zone.

Moreover, a U.S. government watchdog reported Friday that Afghanistan’s economy is worsening, sapping public confidence in the new government. Afghan police and soldiers are struggling to hold together the country 13 months after the U.S.-led military coalition culled its numbers by 90 percent.

The bottom line: For a second time, Mr. Obama is rethinking his plan to drop U.S. troop levels from 9,800 to 5,500 before he leaves office next January.

“I don’t see any drawdowns” in the near future, said James Dobbins, Mr. Obama’s former special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He predicted that Mr. Obama would leave the decision to the next president.

Citing a “worrisome upsurge in insurgent activity” by the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said nearly one-fourth of districts in Afghanistan are at risk of falling to insurgents. Overall, he said, the Afghan government controls 71 percent of the country.

“The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001,” Mr. Sopko said Friday in a quarterly report to Congress.

In addition to the rising threat from insurgents, Mr. Sopko said, reductions in foreign military personnel, a drain of people and capital out of the country and a slowing global economy “are shifting Afghanistan’s economic prospects from troubling to bleak.”

The grim situation already has prompted Mr. Obama to scale back his plans to reduce U.S. troops. Rather than bringing home all troops by 2017, the president decided in October to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of this year, then reduce the force to 5,500.

The White House also has given the military more authority to target the Islamic State, which has been expanding its influence in Afghanistan.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that Afghanistan is in the midst of “a very difficult situation.”

“The Afghan government and the Afghan National Security Forces have been in charge of the security situation in that country for only about a year or so,” he said.

But he said Mr. Obama is “certainly pleased with the performance of the U.S. military and our NATO partners in this effort.”

“And we’ve actually seen from the Afghans a willingness to fight for their country, a willingness to respond to losses and to recover from them and fight back,” he said.

Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, Mr. Obama’s choice to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told senators Thursday that he agrees with the plan of outgoing Gen. John Campbell to keep as many troops in the country for as long as possible before the planned reduction to 5,500 by Jan. 1. He said he will complete a review of the situation within 90 days of taking command, if confirmed by Congress.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said cutting U.S. troop levels from 9,800 to 5,500 could undermine efforts to train Afghan forces and fight militants.

“It’s time to immediately halt U.S. troop withdrawals and eliminate any target date for withdrawal,” Mr. McCain said.

The Pentagon and the inspector general have said the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. The Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack Dec. 21 outside Bagram Air Base that killed six U.S. Air Force personnel, the deadliest attack on U.S. forces since 2012. Two weeks later, a bomb detonated near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, killing two and injuring dozens.

In late October, Gen. Campbell disclosed an operation in Kandahar province that involved 200 special operations forces to target what was “probably the largest” al Qaeda training camp ever found in Afghanistan, Mr. Sopko said.

In late December, the deputy governor of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan publicly criticized Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a Facebook post, saying he couldn’t reach him and needed immediate help to prevent Taliban fighters from taking over the province. British forces were rushed to assist the Afghan army in that region.

The past year has been tough on the Afghan battlefield.

Afghan soldiers and policemen — bankrolled by $4.1 billion in U.S. taxpayer money — fought virtually on their own last year for the first time since the U.S. invasion in 2001. NATO officials have told The Associated Press that Afghan troops are displaying prowess but suffering sustained heavy casualties — 28 percent higher in 2015 than before the international combat mission ended in December 2014.

Asked whether the U.S. effort last year resulted in gains or losses, Gen. Nicholson replied: “The Taliban came at the Afghan Security Forces more intensely than perhaps we anticipated. Because of that, we did not make the advances we thought we would make.”

When U.S. and other foreign troops left on an announced schedule, the Taliban pounced.

Last fall, the militants briefly seized Kunduz, a city of 300,000 in northern Afghanistan. It marked the Taliban’s first capture of a major city since before the U.S.-led invasion and was marred by the mistaken U.S. strike on a charity hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 42 people.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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