The US Department of Defense has curbed the release of unclassified information on Taliban controlled and contested districts and other key metrics about Afghan security force performance to the Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The suppression of information comes as the Taliban controls or contests more ground now than at any point since the US defeated the terrorist group in 2002.
SIGAR made the disturbing announcement in its Jan. 30, 2018 Quarterly Report to Congress.
“This quarter, the Department of Defense (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,” SIGAR noted. Additionally, “although the most recent numbers are unclassified, they are not releasable to the public.”
SIGAR did not state why the DoD determined that the information on district and population control is not releasable to the public. The Inspector General has reported on district control since its Jan. 2016 report and began including population control figures six months later.
The DoD’s decision to restrict the flow of information is “troubling for a number of reasons,” SIGAR noted. In addition to denying “the American taxpayer” access to unclassified information, is also prevents members of Congress from viewing data.
“[T]the number of districts controlled or influenced by the Afghan government had been one of the last remaining publicly available indicators for members of Congress — many of whose staff do not have access to the classified annexes to SIGAR reports — and for the American public of how the 16-year long U.S. effort to secure Afghanistan is faring,” SIGAR noted in its report.
SIGAR noted that “the number of districts controlled or influenced by the government has been falling since SIGAR began reporting on it, while the number controlled or influenced by the insurgents has been rising — a fact that should cause even more concern about its disappearance from public disclosure and discussion.”
In its last report, in Oct. 2017, SIGAR stated that the Afghan government’s ability to control its territory has “deteriorated” as the Taliban has gained control of additional districts.
SIGAR’s data is consistent with an ongoing analysis of Afghanistan’s districts conducted by FDD’s Long War Journal, which began in the summer of 2015 (note: the US military and SIGAR’s assessment of control and influence matches LWJ‘s definition of control). However, while SIGAR released only the numbers, LWJ has provided information on each district that can be assessed. As of Jan. 30, LWJ has determined that 45 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are controlled by the Taliban, while 117 more are contested. An additional 24 districts are claimed by the Taliban to be controlled or contested, but those claims cannot be verified. That means that 35 percent of the districts in Afghanistan are contested and 11 percent are Taliban controlled.
In addition to restricting the district data, the DoD has “for the second consecutive quarter … classified or otherwise restricted information SIGAR had previously reported including such fundamental metrics of ANDSF performance as casualties, attrition, and most capability assessments.”
The DoD’s moves to limit publicly available information is indeed “troubling,” as SIGAR stated. The DoD would not be suppressing information on Taliban district and population control as well as key metrics on the Afghan security forces if the fight was going well.