The U.S. military has stopped tracking the amount of territory controlled or influenced by the Afghan government and militants, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said on Tuesday. This was one of the last remaining public metrics that tracked the worsening security situation in Afghanistan.
The move comes as U.S. and Taliban officials have held several rounds of talks aimed at ensuring a safe exit for U.S. forces in return for a Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used by militants to threaten the rest of the world.
The Taliban announced the start of a spring offensive in early April.
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Even before the announcement, combat had intensified across Afghanistan in recent weeks and hundreds of Afghan troops and civilians have been killed.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a report published late Tuesday night that the U.S. military had told the watchdog it was no longer tracking the level of control or influence the Afghan government and militants had over districts in the country.
The NATO-led Resolute Support (RS) mission in Afghanistan had told SIGAR that the assessments were “of limited decision-making value to the (RS) Commander.”
Colonel David Butler, spokesman for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, said that while Resolute Support was no longer doing the analyses, the intelligence community did its own classified assessment of districts controlled by the government and Taliban. He did not speculate on whether the intelligence community analyses would continue or not, as per Reuters.
“This much is clear: There’s even less information for American taxpayers to gauge whether their investment in Afghanistan is a success, or something else,” John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, told Reuters.
A January SIGAR report put districts under government control or influence at 53.8 per cent covering 63.5 percent of the population by October 2018, with the rest of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban.
Experts said that the move to stop tracking the key data was worrying because Washington had publicly set a benchmark which would now be difficult to measure.
In November 2017, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan at the time set a goal of driving back Taliban insurgents enough for the government to control at least 80 percent of the country within two years.
“If the military is not going to be tracking that data anymore, that is going to make it a lot more difficult to get a sense as to how strong the Taliban is,” Michael Kugelman, with the Woodrow Wilson Center, said. “That may well be the military’s intention,” he said.
According to the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction John Sopko, “It’s getting harder and harder for the public to track the U.S. military’s progress in its 17-year war in Afghanistan”.
John Sopko said that they are finding that almost every “indicia, metric for success or failure is now classified or nonexistent. Over time it’s been classified or it’s no longer being collected. The classification in some areas is needless.”
Asked whether the U.S. is meeting its strategic goals in Afghanistan, Sopko was blunt.
“Ultimately, I don’t think we’ve met all our strategic goals there. The two major goals were, we were going to kick the terrorists out and create a government that could keep the terrorists out. Obviously we haven’t kicked the terrorists out if they’re still blowing things up and we’re negotiating with them,” Sopko said. “That strategic goal is now changed to get them to the peace negotiations. So maybe ultimately, we will ultimately achieve that strategic goal.”
Sopko did not detail what information previously made public would be blacked out in the new report, due out this month.
The SIGAR quarterly reports are mandated by US Congress and are intended to be public documents so as to track waste, fraud and abuse in U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The reports have also become an important tracking tool for territorial and population control by the Taliban.
The number of Afghan security forces killed in action is kept classified at the request of the Afghan government. In the last year, the Defense Department classified basic performance evaluations for the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces, as well as the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. These metrics have been used in the past to assess progress in America’s Afghan war.
In part, the blame rests with the Afghan government, Sopko said. Kabul, which provides some of the information to the U.S. Defense Department, insists that certain data not be made public. (Members of Congress can still view the information in a classified annex.)
“I don’t think it makes sense,” Sopko said. “The Afghan people know which districts are controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows it. The only people who don’t know what’s going on is the people who are paying for all of this and that’s the American taxpayer.”
President Trump in January questioned why the reports are made public, arguing that they provided useful battlefield intelligence to the enemy. “What kind of stuff is this?” he said during a televised cabinet meeting.
“The enemy reads those reports; they study every line of it…. I don’t want it to happen anymore, Mr. Secretary. You understand that.” Future investigations, he said, “should be private reports and be locked up.”
Sopko on Wednesday said that the rise in classification was an ongoing trend, not a result of the president’s apparent public order to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. “There’s been some changes” in the latest report, he said, but “I don’t see any direct link” to the January press conference.
“I don’t think there was any link specifically. There’s been no pushback, nothing as a result of that press conference, and I’ve talked to the other IGs about it too,” Sopko said.
Since 2008, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, has probed the over $100 billion in relief and reconstruction funds spent in Afghanistan since 2002, building the security forces and civil governance institutions, providing development assistance, and running counter-narcotics and anti-corruption efforts. The reports at times have been deeply critical. In November, SIGAR said that Afghan government control over the country was at its lowest point since 2015.