The Defense Department abruptly reversed course on Tuesday, releasing a key datapoint about the progress of the war in Afghanistan just hours after declining to do so.
Earlier in the day, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction released its quarterly report on the status of operation Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. In it, the watchdog group noted that the Pentagon, for the first time ever, was refusing to share how much Afghan territory was currently under the control of the insurgency.
“This quarter, DoD instructed SIGAR not to release to the public data on the number of districts, and the population living in them, controlled or influenced by the Afghan government or by the insurgents, or contested by both,” wrote SIGAR spokesperson Jennifer George-Nichol in an email accompanying the report. “This is the first time SIGAR has been specifically instructed not to release information marked ‘unclassified’ to the American taxpayer.”
By mid-day, DoD was scrambling to clarify matters. Officials said that its refusal to release the relevant data was a mistake caused by “human error.” They also revealed that 44 percent of Afghanistan is now currently under control of the insurgency or contested by it.
Hours later, SIGAR said nothing had changed, and it was still officially barred from publicly releasing the information. “We have yet to receive any formal notification that we are clear to release this information publicly," the agency told The Daily Beast.A source familiar with the crafting of the report also cast doubt on DOD’s “human error” explanation.
The source said that senior Pentagon officials had signed off on the classification status weeks ago.
The source told The Daily Beast that Resolute Support personnel made the determination that a summary of insurgent territorial holdings would be deemed “NATO/RS Unclassified,” which is not releasable to the general public.
That was a change from previous policy. So SIGAR reached out to the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, the Pentagon’s third-ranking civilian, to ask about that classification status. Staff in that office told SIGAR that they were “not in a position to override” that classification.
DoD did not respond to a request for comment on the report.
That information’s unprecedented classification status raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill, where some members of Congress have recently asked the Pentagon to be more forthcoming with information about the status of the Afghan insurgency and U.S.-aligned government security forces.
Asked about SIGAR’s most recent report, a spokesperson for Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he “believes in transparency and the American taxpayer’s right to know how his or her money is being spent overseas, so long as it doesn’t risk national security efforts."
Not all information on Afghan reconstruction status was held back in the latest SIGAR report. But the data points that were included did not present an optimistic view of the effort. Among its most alarming findings was information on the thriving Afghan opium trade. Despite billions in US-funded counter-narcotics operations, SIGAR found, the total area devoted to opium cultivation in the country is roughly the size of Rhode Island, or about 1,200 square miles.
Even as its drug trade thrives, Afghanistan’s licit natural resources are providing little financial benefit. “Despite Afghanistan's large and well-documented resources, mining revenues in 2016 supplied only 0.3% of the country's $6.5 billion national budget,” SIGAR found. “Among other obstacles, plans to develop the country's mineral resources have been stymied by insecurity, corruption, weak governance, and a lack of infrastructure.”
The human toll of that unrest remains high, according to the report. Civilian casualties in the conflict are up 13% from last year.
Even prior to Tuesday’s report, the DoD has come under criticism for trying to hide data about the situation in Afghanistan from public view. Pentagon personnel also classified a report detailing widespread allegations of pedophilia against high-ranking members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. SIGAR released a public version of that report this month after Jones and other members of Congress urged its declassification.
Jones also sent a letter to the Pentagon last month requesting the declassification of information regarding the status and performance of the ANDSF.
“America has already spent $70 billion to prop up the Afghan defense and security forces. Billions more are dedicated to that effort every year,” Jones wrote in his letter. “Without information on progress and performance, there is no way for taxpayers to judge what kind of return they’re getting on their investment. That is unacceptable.”