May 1 (UPI) -- Desertions and high casualty rates have sharply decreased the number of U.S.-funded Afghan security personnel over the past year, a U.S. government watchdog said.
The Afghan National Army fell to 85 percent of its authorized strength by the end of January, and the Afghan National Police to 93 percent.
According to the SIGAR report, the Taliban and other militant groups control or influence 14 percent of the 407 districts in Afghanistan -- the highest level since 2015, when the group started recording data.
At the start of March, about 7,800 U.S. special forces were in the country to train, advise and assist Afghan troop, according to SIGAR.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan and Syria for the long term to leverage a diplomatic solution to ongoing conflicts.
The president's new plan, announced last year, reaffirmed the United States' commitment to the Afghan conflict and pledged to send more U.S. troops to help fight the Taliban insurgency.
Mattis said that strategy, combined with the resilience of the Afghan forces, has put the Taliban "on their back foot."
"We anticipated they would do their best" to disrupt upcoming elections with a wave of bombings, Mattis said. "The Taliban realize the danger of the people being allowed to vote," Mattis said. "Their goal is to destabilize the elected government. This is the normal stuff by people who can't win at the ballot box. They turn to bombs."