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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Pentagon Nixes Release of Afghan Reconstruction Data—Again

Marines show Afghan National Police officers how to disassemble their new M16A2 assault rifles to clean them at Bost Airport in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2017. (Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff)

The Department of Defense (DoD) is refusing to publicly release information measuring the strength and progress of Afghanistan’s security forces, even as it is asking for a big increase in troop levels and financial support for that war-torn country.

Last week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported to Congress that U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has “classified or otherwise restricted” metrics about the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (Afghan Forces), including casualties, personnel strength, attrition, and operational readiness—information SIGAR had recently been permitted to share with the public. This data is crucial for determining when security in the country can finally be turned over to the Afghan military and police. An internal SIGAR memorandum posted on Monday by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) shows exactly what data will now be kept secret.

According to SIGAR, USFOR-A determined that Afghan Forces data “belongs to the Afghan government,” which requested that it be classified. A spokesman for USFOR-A told the Project On Government Oversight that it “recognizes and respects” the Afghan government’s decision, and that it was based on “operational security and protecting national interests.”

We find it difficult to take this official explanation at face value for two reasons. First, the DoD tried this before. In early 2015, the U.S. command, citing security concerns, began to retroactively classify certain Afghan Forces metrics. At the time, there was speculation the real reason was to hide the bad news about the Afghan Forces' strength and readiness. Weeks later, the military—without explanation—reversed course and declassified most of the data. (Since then, SIGAR has published restricted data in a classified annex to its quarterly reports that is only made available to those with a high-level security clearance.)

Second, the new classification policy just doesn’t make sense. As explained in the internal SIGAR memo, the restricted material is “historical in nature (usually between one and three months old)” and is “top-line” (as opposed to unit-specific) data. It’s basic information essential for accountability. Moreover, USFOR-A retroactively classified equipment operational readiness data as it pertains to the Afghan national army and police, but not the Afghan air force, even though USFOR-A’s classification guide states that “all material readiness data should be classified,” according to SIGAR.

The Afghanistan reconstruction effort, now in its seventeenth year, has cost taxpayers approximately $121 billion. SIGAR noted the United States has spent more than $72 billion since 2002 to build up the Afghan Forces, and warned the increased classification “will hinder SIGAR’s ability to publicly report on progress or failure in a key reconstruction sector.” Meanwhile, the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Afghan security forces, facing high casualty and attrition rates, are steadily losing territory—and a large amount of U.S.-supplied equipment and weapons—to the Taliban.

The DoD should declassify the Afghan Forces data immediately, regardless of who it “belongs” to. (POGO can think of 72 billion reasons the United States is the rightful owner.) Taxpayers need to hear the bad news. We deserve to know exactly what we are paying for in Afghanistan.