Taliban attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul are on the rise, with increasing targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders and journalists, a report by a US watchdog says.

The report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, on Monday comes as the Biden administration plans to take a new look at the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban signed last February under President Donald Trump.

“Enemy attacks in Kabul were higher than during the previous quarter,” the report quoted the US forces in Afghanistan as saying. “They were much higher than in the same quarter last year.”

Wave of attacks

The Taliban unleashed a wave of attacks in Afghanistan in December, including attacks in northern Baghlan and southern Uruzgan provinces, over a two-day period that killed at least 19 members of the Afghan security forces. In Kabul, a roadside bomb struck a vehicle, wounding two, and a lawyer was shot in a targeted killing.

Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, reported 2,586 civilian casualties from October 1 to December 31 last year, including 810 killed and 1,776 wounded, according to the SIGAR report.

The report said the proportion of casualties caused by improvised explosive devices increased by nearly 17 percent in this quarter, correlating with an increase in magnetically attached IEDs or “sticky bomb” attacks, the report said.

Despite the ongoing violence, casualties across Afghanistan in the last quarter of 2020 decreased by 14 percent, compared with the previous quarter. The quarter did, however, see an exceptionally high number of casualties for the winter months when fighting normally subsides.

The US has been the prime backer of the Afghan government since it invaded the country soon after the September 11, 2001, attacking and overthrowing the Taliban, who were running the country and harbouring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The US spends about $4bn a year to assist Afghan security forces.

Corruption is rampant among Afghan government ministries, driving a wedge between the government and much of the population, frustrating international donors, and contributing to a poverty level in the country of more than 72 percent, according to the World Bank.

Also, recent international aid agency reports said that more than half of Afghans are in dire need of assistance just to survive in 2021.

The rampant corruption has alienated most Afghans caught between war and relentless poverty, despite billions of dollars in international aid.

By the end of 2020, Afghanistan’s unemployment rate was projected to rise to 37.9 percent, up from 23.9 percent in 2019, said the report.

Taliban representatives and the Afghan government earlier this month resumed peace talks in Qatar, the Gulf state where the armed group maintains an office. The talks are aimed at ending decades of conflict, but frustration and fear have grown over the recent spike in violence, and each side blames the other.

‘Review’ of the peace deal

The White House said President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told his Afghan counterpart in a phone call last week that the new administration will “review” the agreement between the US and the Taliban.

Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said last week the US stands by its commitment under the deal for a full troop withdrawal, but the agreement also calls for the Taliban to cut ties with al-Qaeda and reduce violence.

The US military said earlier this month that it had met its goal of reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan to about 2,500.

Senior US commanders are sceptical of the Taliban’s stated commitment to peace, though they have said they can accomplish their mission in Afghanistan at that troop level.

“As the footprint of US agencies continues to shrink, it will become more important that the US and other donors perform aggressive and effective oversight of its dollars and programs,” said Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John F Sopko.

US air raids increased in the last quarter of 2020 as US forces provided defensive support to Afghan security forces, according to the US military. It reiterated that since the signing of the US-Taliban deal, US forces have ceased offensive attacks against the Taliban.

The authorised goal strength of Afghan defence forces has been adjusted downward to 208,000 personnel, the SIGAR report said. It had been roughly 227,000 for many years.

Afghan special forces conducted the highest number of ground operations in the last quarter of 2020 in more than a year, NATO said.

The 1,152 ground operations were nearly double the number conducted during the same period last year, reflecting a 4-percent increase compared with the previous quarter.