The U.S. military is sharply restricting the information an independent Pentagon watchdog can make public about the key measures of success in the war, as the Afghan government loses its grip on more territory and the pace of combat and civilian casualties rises.
The latest quarterly report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, contains a disclaimer that the U.S. military command In Afghanistan has now classified metrics that have been routinely reported for years.
“In a significant development this quarter, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan classified or otherwise restricted information SIGAR has until now publicly reported,” the report states. “These include important measures of [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] performance such as casualties, personnel strength, attrition, capability assessments, and operational readiness of equipment.”
The clampdown comes as the Pentagon is implementing a new strategy designed to demoralize a resurgent Taliban and drive them to negotiate a peace agreement with the Afghan government.
Part of the strategy is to no longer release any tactical information that would provide aid or comfort to the enemy, according to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“In talking with the American people, we will tell them we are adding the troops. We'll give approximate numbers. We're not hiding this,” Mattis testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the new Afghanistan strategy Oct 3. “But I'd rather not say the specific capabilities or the specific numbers or the location on the battlefield."
The SIGAR report notes this is the second time the U.S. military has sought to classify information on Afghan military capabilities that was previously releasable to the public.
“In the first quarter of 2015, RS classified the answers to 31 of SIGAR’s 38 questions, only to declassify the bulk of them a few days after SIGAR published its January 30, 2015, quarterly report,” the report says.
SIGAR will include some of the now-classified data in a classified annex available to members of Congress, and appropriate Pentagon and State Department officials.
Navy Capt. Tom Gresbeck, spokesman for Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan, told the Washington Examiner that the request to classify the data came from President Ashraf Ghani.
"Since the last SIGAR report was released, the President of Afghanistan notified USFOR-A and Resolute Support that the ANDSF casualty data must be treated as classified information," he said. "Such casualty data may only be declassified or released with GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] consent, since GIRoA is the original classification authority."
Despite the new restrictions, the special inspector general was able to report a number of metrics that show the war is not going well, including a new assessment that shows the Afghan government continues to lose control of the large parts of the country, and that 3.7 million Afghans (11.4 percent of the population) now live under insurgent control or influence.
“As of August 2017, there were 54 districts under insurgent control (13) or influence (41), an increase of nine districts over the last six months,” the report says, adding that’s the lowest level of Afghan government control deteriorated since SIGAR began keeping track.
Other key findings include:
- A reported 52 percent increase in civilian casualties from U.S. and Afghan airstrikes in the first nine months of 2017, with more than two-thirds reportedly women and children.
- A rise in U.S. combat casualties with 10 killed and 48 wounded so far this year, double the numbers of U.S. troops killed in action compared to the same periods in 2015 and 2016.
- A sharp increase in the number of bombs dropped and missiles fired from U.S. combat aircraft, unloading the most munitions against the Taliban and Islamic State since 2012 (751 in September) and conducting 2,400 airstrikes from January to September (the most since 2014).
The report notes that U.S. Forces-Afghanistan “strongly disagreed” with the numbers of civilians killed in airstrikes by international military forces, as reported by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
“USFOR-A strongly disagreed with UNAMA’s assessment and methodology, offering instead that it had confirmed 43 civilian casualties caused by international air strikes during this period.”
The U.N. group also reported deaths and injuries to women and children rose 13 percent compared to the same period last year.
UNAMA attributed 177, or 38 percent, of all civilian casualties from airstrikes to international military forces.