♦ Russia plays power broker as US-Taliban talks gather steam
♦ US forces intensify campaign against insurgent groups
The Kabul government is steadily losing its grip over parts of Afghanistan even as American forces intensify their air campaign against insurgent groups, a US government watchdog said yesterday.
The latest grim assessment of Afghanistan's security situation comes as the US pursues talks with the Taliban and urgently seeks a way out of the 17-year war.
Numbers provided by Resolute Support, the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan, show that as of October 31, only 63.5 percent of Afghans are living in areas controlled or influenced by the Kabul government -- down from 65.2 percent the previous quarter.
According to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which compiled the data, the decrease came as Kabul's control or influence over Afghan districts dropped.
SIGAR said just 53.8 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts are in government hands, and experts on Afghanistan say the number is lower still.
Instead of looking at population metrics, the Pentagon in a response to SIGAR said it is more important to "focus on the principal goal of the strategy of concluding the war in Afghanistan on terms favorable to Afghanistan and the United States."
Officials pointed to ongoing talks between the Taliban and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who this week said he had sealed the outlines of a peace deal, reported AFP.
Highlighting the ongoing security crisis, SIGAR said the US has dramatically increased air strikes, dropping 6,823 bombs in the first 11 months of 2018.
The "figure was already 56 percent higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016," SIGAR said in its report.
Meanwhile, the strength of Afghan security forces has continued to dwindle, and currently stands at 308,693 personnel. That means only 87.7 percent of positions are filled, the lowest level since January 2015.
Russian and Taliban sources said Russia will host the Taliban and Afghan politicians opposed to President Ashraf Ghani, promoting its role of power broker in what a US official called an attempt to "muddle" the US-backed peace process.
Moscow snubbed the Afghan government, sources said, to ensure the participation of the Taliban who refuse to hold talks with Ghani's representatives to end the 17-year-old Afghan war, branding them puppets of the United States, reported Reuters.
"Senior Taliban leaders and prominent Afghan politicians will travel to Moscow for a day-long summit. At this sensitive stage, it was best to not have Afghan government officials at the table," said a Russian official on condition of anonymity.
The Russian Embassy in Kabul was not available for comment.