The U.S. military is denying it had any intention of withholding information about the extent of government control in Afghanistan, a statistic that is not classified, and has been publicly available for years.
The denial came Tuesday morning hours after an internal watchdog said it had been ordered to no longer disclose how much territory the Taliban holds in Afghanistan.
In an email response to the Washington Examiner, the chief U.S. military spokesman for the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan blamed a classification error for the mix-up.
“It was NOT the intent of Resolute Support to withhold or classify information which was available in prior reports. A human error in labeling occurred,” said Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, public affairs director for the NATO-led mission.
“The classification system, because it incorporates both a NATO and U.S. nomenclature, can be challenging, and a mistake was made,” Gresback said. “The data is not classified and there was no intent to withhold it unnecessarily.”
In his latest report to Congress, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko was sharply critical of the Pentagon’s instruction to withhold the unclassified metrics that had been previously considered public. He said the latest clampdown specifically involves how many districts the Taliban controls in Afghanistan compared to the U.S.-backed government, which Sopko called “one of the last remaining publicly available indicators for members of Congress and for the American public of how the 16-year-long U.S. effort to secure Afghanistan is faring.”
In an interview with NPR on Tuesday morning, Sopko complained that he had been given no explanation for the request, and noted dryly that the enemy knows how much territory it controls.
“This development is troubling for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this is the first time SIGAR has been specifically instructed not to release information marked 'unclassified to the American taxpayer,” he wrote in the report.
In response, Resolute Support released the latest data. “As of October 2017, approximately 56% of the country's 407 districts are under Afghan government control or influence, 30% remain contested, and approximately 14% are now under insurgent control or influence."
When notified of the military's explanation, Sopko said he has not heard anything through official channels.
“We have yet to receive any formal notification that we are clear to release this information publicly,” Sopko told the Washington Examiner, adding that he takes the classification of information “very seriously.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, is still withholding key measures that would allow the American public to judge for itself if the war, now into its 17th year, is turning a corner under a new more robust strategy approved by President Trump.
The Jan. 30 report notes that for the first time since 2009, Resolute Support classified the exact, assigned and authorized force strength and attrition data for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. This is also the second consecutive quarter in which the Defense Department classified or otherwise restricted information SIGAR had previously reported, including such fundamental metrics of ANDSF performance as casualties, attrition and most capability assessments.
The Pentagon says the decision to classify those metrics were in response to a request from the government of Afghanistan, which asked the U.S. to withhold information about the size, strength and capability of its military and security forces for reasons of “operational security.”