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The security forces continue to lose grip over parts of Afghanistan and the Taliban are steadily holding their own, despite an increase in the US air attacks against the armed group, a US watchdog agency has said.

The latest quarterly report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows 53.8 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are with the government, covering 63.5 percent of the population by October 2018, with the rest of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban.

The report was released on Thursday, days after the US peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, hailed “significant progress” in six days of talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, aimed at finding a solution to end the 17-year-old war in the South Asian country.

SIGAR said Afghan forces had decreased to 308,693 troops, or 87.7 percent of its strength, the lowest since the start of NATO’s operation to train, advise and assist Afghan National Defence and Security Forces in January 2015.

‘Stuck in the mud’

The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission, known as Resolute Support, and a separate counterterrorism mission largely directed against armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) and the al-Qaeda.

‘Significant progress’ made in US-Taliban talks in Qatar

About 8,000 troops from 38 other countries also participate in Resolute Support.

Intizar Khadim is a political analyst and lecturer at Moraa University in Kabul. He said the report highlights the need for the US to change its tactics.

“It is not just about the Taliban increase in territorial control but why we are not winning this war, why we are just stuck in the mud for the last 17 years … why the US, the international community and the Afghan government are still claiming that they can fight yet they report on the decrease in the territory control of the Afghan government,” Khadim told Al Jazeera.

“For sure the negotiation is on the table, but if we are not going in the right direction [in the peace talks] we are not succeeding.”

Increased air attacks

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was reported as saying at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week that 45,000 Afghan security forces have died since September 2014.

As the security crisis continues, SIGAR also noted the US has dramatically increased air attacks, dropping 6,823 bombs in the first 11 months of 2018.

“This year’s 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 released in 2016,” SIGAR said in its report.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has documented civilian casualties in Afghanistan since 2009, said in its latest October report there were 8,050 civilian casualties during the first nine months of the year, including 313 deaths and 336 injuries caused by US and Afghan air attacks.

The Taliban, which was removed from power by the US-led forces in 2001, has waged a bloody armed rebellion to defeat the Western-backed government in Kabul for nearly 18 years.

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