As the war in Afghanistan intensifies, Americans have less information about its progress following the Pentagon’s request that an official watchdog withhold data previously made public as well as the classification of previously unclassified information regarding the war effort. The changes reflect, in a way, U.S. President Donald Trump’s preference for secrecy over transparency and serve to mask a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
In its January quarterly report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John F. Sopko, wrote that the U.S. Department of Defense instructed SIGAR to hold back data on the number of districts controlled or influenced by the Afghan government or insurgents, as well as the number of contested districts.
SIGAR called the development “troubling,” not the least because it is the first time the oversight body has been instructed not to release information marked “unclassified” to the public.
Hours later, the Pentagon claimed there had been a mistake and released the district-control data. In an email to Newsweek, Captain Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for coalition troops in Afghanistan, said, “A human error in labeling occurred… It was NOT the intent … to withhold or classify information which was available in prior reports.”
The number of districts controlled or influenced by the Afghan government, SIGAR noted in its report, has been falling since its initial inclusion in the quarterly reports in January 2016. SIGAR’s October 2017 quarterly report stated that in population terms, according to U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), 63.7 percent of Afghanistan’s population lived in areas controlled or influenced by the government, with an additional 24.9 percent living in contested areas; 11.4 percent of the population, then, was living as of August 2017 in areas controlled or contested by insurgents. In terms of districts, in the October 2017 report SIGAR said the Afghan government controlled or influenced 56.8 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and the insurgents controlled or influenced 13.3 percent of districts.
The data is summarized in three sections: districts, population and area, which can lead to some confusion when comparing figures.
SIGAR pointed out that while the Pentagon instructed the watchdog to withhold district-control data from the January 2018 report, the Defense Department released an unclassified report in December that included such information. Released on December 15, the Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report says:
As of October 2017, RS [Resolute Support] assessed that the Afghan Government maintained control or influence over approximately 60 percent of the population, while insurgents had control or influence over approximately 10 percent of the population, with the remainder contested.
The Pentagon now says the coalition controls 56 percent of Afghanistan’s districts and the insurgents control 14 percent, both numbers continue the trend of declining control.
Furthermore, Resolute Support (RS) and USFOR-A classified the exact force strength figures for most of the Afghan security forces for the first time since 2009, data which remains withheld.
In October 2017’s quarterly report, the Pentagon classified “or otherwise restricted” for the first time information included in previous SIGAR reports on Afghan security forces casualties, attrition, capability assessments, and operational readiness of equipment. This classification continued into the January report, where SIGAR referred to the information as “essential to assessing the development and performance of the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces].”
Additionally, for the first time, the SIGAR report noted, RS and USFOR-A classified information “about the specific security goals for Afghanistan outlined in the administration’s new South Asia strategy,” and as well as information about the increase in U.S. and coalition air strikes since mid-2017, including the number of strikes and civilian casualties.
Nevertheless the report does include some information about air strikes, sourced in part from the United Nations, which said Afghan and coalition forces condued 215 air strikes in the most recent quarter, a 73 percent increase from the same period in 2016. The United States also dropped a record number of munitions in October, 653, a three-fold increase from October 2016.
In August 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his South Asia strategy. Trump had already talked big about unleashing the generals, increasing the number of troops, and ditching timelines. In his speech explaining the strategy, Trump said one of its core pillars would be a switch from a time-based approach to one based on conditions: “Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on.”
The public now knows less about the conditions on the ground than before, and that’s by design. This is Trump’s way of war in Afghanistan. In his August 2017 speech on Afghanistan, Trump also said, “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
The data being withheld are simple and accessible measures of the war’s progress. Although the Pentagon released the district-control data, it told a story contrary to the president’s winning mantra. And the still-missing civilian casualty information once provided an uncomfortable, but vital, check on the war’s moral compass. Its absence, and the censoring of other data points, contribute to the obfuscation of the war.
The U.S. government may be withholding information from its citizens about the war, but it’s not alone and this isn’t trend entirely new. Indeed, the day before the latest SIGAR report was released, Thomas Ruttig wrote for the Afghanistan Analysts Network that “Tracking trends in security has become more difficult, as more areas suffering conflict have become inaccessible and those fighting – both Afghan and international – less transparent.”
It doesn’t take official data to see that the security situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate. As a recent New York Times piece noted, in the past two weeks 128 people in Kabul alone have been killed, not to mention attacks elsewhere in the country. The article pointed to successive generations of generals in Afghanistan who have all promised the war would turn a corner soon.
It doesn’t matter how many times a general says the war is going well; victory seems as distant as ever. Trump’s strategy is decidedly heavy on the offense, which means more air strikes, more special forces raids, more civilian and military casualties; and given that Trump just dismissed the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban, we can also expect an increasing number of retaliatory attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan.