The number of Afghan security personnel, who are tasked with defending the war-ravaged country from a continuing insurgency, has dropped by 10% in a year, a strong indication that a multi-billion dollar training program funded by the US is failing.
The rare insight into the condition of Afghan security personnel comes in the latest report on the conflict by the US inspector general, who is tasked with assessing its cost to the US taxpayer.
In its quarterly report for the US Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says it was told by the US military that the total number of Afghan security personnel, including police and military, stood at 296,409 in January this year. A year earlier, the figure was 35,999 higher, the SIGAR report says. "These figures represent a sharp decline in strength from the same period last year," the report notes.
No immediate explanation was provided for the change, although the growth of the insurgency in Afghanistan in the past year will likely have led to the deaths of many police or army personnel, or contributed to the decision of others to leave the forces.
It is hard to know for sure -- while the SIGAR report notes the total number of security personnel from year to year, the inspector general is not allowed to disclose the number of Afghan soldiers and police who have died, been wounded or are just not turning up to work.
SIGAR has been critical of the decision by the Afghan government to keep the casualty figures of its security forces classified, citing "persistent concerns" over classification in its latest report. The US is forced to go along with the decision "because Afghanistan is a sovereign nation," the report notes.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told CNN in an interview in March that casualty figures would be made available. Two months later, his officials have declined to provide them.
The special inspector general, John F. Sopko, told CNN: "The Taliban knows what's going on, the Afghan government knows what's going on, the only people who don't know what's going on are the people who are paying for it -- the American taxpayer."
The number of casualties among Afghan security forces is one of the few available metrics through which analysts can gauge the success of a lengthy war that is often hard to interpret.
Since 2005, according to the latest SIGAR report, the US has spent $72.83 billion on supplying, training and funding Afghan security forces in an effort -- so far unsuccessful -- to enable them to provide security to the country without outside support.
A recent spate of bombings in the capital Kabul has led many to regard the city, once a relatively safe sanctuary, as now a new front line in the war with the Taliban and ISIS.
The latest attack came a week ago when ISIS targeted Afghan journalists in a suicide bombing. US President Donald Trump has pledged to "win" the Afghan war, and it is the one conflict for which he has personally articulated a strategy designed to achieve that end.
In a March interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, President Ghani insisted the casualty figures were not classified. He said: "We have not classified the body count. This is totally false. It is available. The US openly publishes it. We are fully willing to make it available to any person, and the good news is that it has come down."
In the two months since the interview, CNN has contacted Ghani's office, which referred requests for the figures to the Ministry of Defense, which in turn referred requests back to the President's office.
One official said the data was accessible, but departments representing each branch of Afghan security forces had to be contacted directly by CNN. Yet the official declined to provide data for his own department.
The SIGAR report says the casualty figures remain classified "at the request of the Afghan government."
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