Holding the Government Accountable

MIA: Missing Information on Afghanistan

Disappearing data raise questions about America’s longest war
U.S. Marines light up the night with a mortar-fired illumination round to deter Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan in July. (Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins)

For those of us of a certain age, the numbers we recall from the Vietnam War were the enemy body counts. The Pentagon deemed the toll of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong corpses as a proxy for progress.

But now the boot is on the other foot. The Pentagon is suddenly denying us friendly body counts from Afghanistan, where Americans have been fighting for more than 16 years, at a cost of 2,194 U.S. troops’ lives and nearly $1 trillion. More than $70 billion of that sum is to train and outfit the Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban on their own. How are they doing? None of your business.

Afghanistan remains a sucking chest wound, and the U.S. military is the medic valiantly fighting to keep it alive. If Washington wanted this information made public, it would be.

In his 37th quarterly report released date Oct. 30, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said the Pentagon’s Afghan command is denying the public information about “important measures of [Afghan military] performance such as casualties, personnel strength, attrition, and the operational readiness of equipment.”

The Pentagon is quick to blame the Afghan government for the missing information. The Pentagon told Sopko that “the casualty data belonged to the Afghan government, and the government had requested that it be classified,” his report said. The Pentagon said “a recent legal review determined that this [Afghan] data belongs to the Afghan government and therefore [the U.S.] must withhold, restrict, or classify the data as long as the Afghan government has classified it.”

That’s ridiculous: Since 2002, Kabul has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Defense. Afghanistan remains a sucking chest wound, and the U.S. military is the medic valiantly fighting to keep it alive. If Washington wanted this information made public, it would be.

We’ve been through this before: in 2015, the U.S. military classified details about the Afghan war that previously had been released, a decision that was pretty much reversed shortly as soon as it was made public. But citing Afghanistan as the reason for the latest round of missing data gives the Pentagon a club to keep it hidden that it didn’t have last time.

“Abusing classification as a tool to extinguish sunlight undermines public confidence that U.S. taxpayer dollars are being well-spent on America’s longest war,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the judiciary committee. “There can’t be accountability without transparency.”

In my decades of covering the U.S. military, there were some data that warranted classification. I’d peg it at around 10 percent. And much of that, in wartime, is known to the enemy. The remaining 90 percent is usually designed to hide information that is embarrassing to those in charge because of costs, delays, and a failure to achieve what was pledged to be delivered. This too is human nature, as any parent of a young child weighing the wisdom of fibbing knows.

Depending on where you stand on this particular conflict, you can look at this information vacuum as a canteen half-empty, or half-full. “The motives to classify this type of data could originate from the same concerns that led [President] Trump to reject the establishment of artificial timetables in Afghanistan. Both moves act to remove actionable intelligence that the Taliban could use for recruitment and propaganda purposes,” says Phil Hegseth in the Long War Journal. “On the other hand, more likely the action will be seen as an attempt to cover up failures in the U.S. effort to develop a capable Afghan National Defense and Security Forces…Paid for by the American taxpayer, sluggish progress of such programs threatens to make the aging and beleaguered effort unpopular at home.”

Unpopular at home? The U.S. public has so little invested in Afghanistan it really doesn’t care.

This is all part of a trend designed to cleave Americans—in whose name this war is being waged—from the war itself. First of all, Congress abdicated its constitutionally-mandated obligation to declare war on Afghanistan, which had offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda while they plotted the 9/11 attacks. The nation has abolished the draft, severing Americans from their most visceral connection to combat. Next, the Pentagon has taken soldiers off the battlefield, sending reinforcements of costly private contractors instead (double the official number of U.S. combat boots on the ground to account for this padding, which lets the White House maintain an artificially low ceiling on troop deployments). Finally, the U.S. government took the dollars away. Instead of doing what is right—paying for the war as it is being fought—it chose to borrow much of the money needed for the fight. It—we—prefer to bump much of the bill to our children, and grandchildren.

Now the Pentagon is taking the data away. When things are going well, there’s no shutting up the Pentagon. The brass, always conscious of their sheen, are just like the beaming schoolchild who has gotten a gold star on a spelling test. There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s human nature. But it’s not human—or bureaucratic—nature to hide good news.

Fact is, U.S.-backed Afghan forces are locked in a stalemate with Taliban insurgents, giving up more ground as their casualties rise. The data are grim: Nearly 21 million of Afghanistan’s 32 million people (63.7 percent) reside in areas “controlled or influenced” by the central government, well below the U.S. target of 80 percent. Nearly 14 percent of the country’s 407 districts are under insurgent control, a hike of more than 2 percentage points in the last six months, and a five-point increase over 2016. Almost a quarter of the population now lives in contested areas. Each month, more than 100,000 additional Afghan citizens come under Taliban control; that’s more than 3,000 a day falling under their shadow.

This chart, from the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, shows that the districts controlled by insurgents has neatly doubled in less than two years.
This chart, from the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, shows that the districts controlled by insurgents has neatly doubled in less than two years. (Source: SIGAR)

The U.S. has been whipsawed in Afghanistan. First, it pushed it to the back burner so that President George W. Bush could invade Iraq 16 months after invading Afghanistan. Then, President Barack Obama’s rush to wrap up the Afghan war contributed to the Taliban’s resurgence.

Now, the U.S. is stepping up its efforts in an effort to force the Taliban to negotiate peace. Air strikes jumped by 50 percent from August to September, and Trump has sent 3,800 more troops there. That has boosted the total U.S. troops in country to more than 15,000. Hundreds of additional U.S. trainers are slated to arrive in Afghanistan early next year, pushing the American troop total to close to 16,000. “This is a fight and talk approach,” Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said Nov. 8 at a NATO confab in Brussels. “We’re encouraging the enemy to engage in these conversations as we increase the pressure.”

For those keeping score at home, until recent months the U.S. government was telling U.S. citizens there were only 8,400 U.S. troops on Afghan soil. How the troop count has grown so fast offers a key lesson in the slipperiness of Pentagon numbers. The Obama Pentagon, eager to keep its troop numbers low, used a 28-inch yardstick to count them. While the 8,400 troop number was what the Pentagon officially calls its Force Management Level for Afghanistan—giving it a patina of plausibility it didn’t warrant—that number didn’t include thousands of others deployed to Afghanistan on short-term assignments.

“Until now, the department has routinely reported approximately 8,400 forces, with a complex series of authorized exemptions above that,” Marine Lieut. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., the top aide to the Joint Chiefs, told reporters Aug. 30. “Under the new, simplified accounting methodology, the current total forces number in Afghanistan is approximately 11,000.”

George Orwell: call your office! When a simple Pentagon rhetorical shift from “a complex series of authorized exemptions” to a “new, simplified accounting methodology” leads to a 31 percent hike in U.S. troops in a war zone overnight, something is very wrong.

But such elastic accounting has long been par for the course at the Pentagon. That’s why we shouldn’t rely solely on the U.S. military to tell us how our wars are going. For the same reason, we should temper our outrage over this latest batch of missing numbers. As the troop-count fiasco shows, even the Pentagon’s “real” numbers are suspect.

Too often, U.S. commanders measure the wrong things, focusing on process instead of progress. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, alludes to this tendency in his latest report. The Pentagon’s “forecasts and targets for force readiness were largely based on the U.S. military’s capacity for recruitment and training, and not based on battlefield performance and other factors corroding the Afghan force,” he says. “Issues such as ghost soldiers, corruption, and high levels of attrition were more critical than training capacity to measuring true [Afghan] capabilities.”

In other words, the Pentagon, echoing its Vietnam preoccupation with body counts, has long been more concerned with things it can count, rather than on what really counts.