- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2016

Opium production is up 43 percent in Afghanistan, the economy is struggling and the government has lost ground to insurgents over the last year, according to an inspector general’s report released Sunday that shows ongoing failures overshadowing the few signs of hope.

Afghan army recruits increasingly are coming from the better-educated parts of society, and the army reports a high esprit de corps, but more of them also are being contacted by “anti-government elements” looking so sow dissension, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said in its quarterly report to Congress.

The country averages 68 security incidents a day — the majority of which are shootouts, followed by explosive devices — and the first six months of 2016 were the deadliest in seven years. Nearly a third of the more than 5,000 killed or injured were children.

More people are fleeing as refugees, seeking to escape worsening conditions and adding to the surge of Middle Easterners who are putting pressure on the U.S. and Europe.

“Past gains are eroding: poverty, unemployment, underemployment, violence, out-migration, internal displacement, and the education gender gap have all increased, while services and private investment have decreased,” said the inspector general, citing World Bank conclusions.

Fifteen years after the U.S. intervened to oust the Taliban government, taxpayers have ponied up some $115.2 billion for relief and reconstruction, yet Afghanistan continues to struggle on many of the key ways to measure that investment.

The Afghan government could claim to have control or influence over 258 of the country’s 407 districts at the end of August — down from 267 districts a year earlier.

But there are signs that the future could be better: The Afghan National Army is beginning to shape up, with troops and recruits reporting satisfaction with their mission and treatment. Recruits also are increasingly coming from better-educated parts of the country, with 62 percent reporting a high school education, compared with just 26 percent of current soldiers.

Recognizing the immediate struggles, President Obama this summer scrapped plans for a deeper troop drawdown and announced that the U.S. would maintain more than 8,000 troops through the end of his administration.

But Afghanistan has been the forgotten issue in the presidential campaign between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, who have instead focused on Syria and Iraq, where a poisonous mixture of American, Russian and competing Arab interests are feeding violence.

Mr. Trump at one point called the decision to intervene in Afghanistan a “terrible mistake,” while saying the U.S. now needs to remain engaged.

Mrs. Clinton’s history is far more extensive. She has advocated for higher troop levels during her tenure as Mr. Obama’s chief diplomat and has been strikingly silent about the war during the presidential campaign.

Whoever wins the White House will face a rough situation in Afghan security and domestic needs. Unemployment has nearly tripled from 2011 to 2014, to a rate of 23 percent.

Recognition of women’s rights has been sliding. While women are advancing in terms of education and in the workforce, attitudes are increasingly harsh.

More than 22 percent of women are contributing to their family’s finances, up from about 14 percent in 2009, but the percentage of Afghans who believe women should work outside the home has dropped from 71 percent to 64 percent.

Meanwhile, the majority of Afghan men say only men should hold political leadership positions. Opposition to women having the same education opportunities as men has risen from 8 percent in 2006 to 21 percent in 2015.

“Part of the problem with educating girls in Afghanistan is that many families do not approve of sending girls to school with boys after puberty,” the inspector general said.

One female member of the Afghan parliament who ran a nonprofit to help women market their handicrafts was shot for arguing with men about women’s rights. One Afghan leader suggested having the government intervene by buying and reselling women’s products — and if a husband mistreats a women, he won’t get money from her work.

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