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U.S. Military Withholds Key Measures Of Afghan War

New members of the Afghan special forces attend their graduation ceremony earlier this month at the Afghan Corp, on the outskirts of Kabul.
Rahmat Gul
New members of the Afghan special forces attend their graduation ceremony earlier this month at the Afghan Corp, on the outskirts of Kabul.

Updated on Nov. 2 at 5:45 p.m. ET

The majority of U.S. funding for Afghanistan reconstruction has gone to supporting the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, totaling more than $63 billion.

But it's now going to be significantly harder for the public to understand how the U.S.-supported Afghan forces are faring in the fight against the Taliban.

Very basic information such as the number of Afghan troops that have died, the exact size of the force, how many people are joining, and the readiness of their equipment has previously been made available in quarterly reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — a military agency set up by Congress that audits U.S. spending in Afghanistan.

The watchdog's report released Tuesday, however, explained that the U.S. military command in Afghanistan withheld these crucial measures of the war's progress this time around.

A U.S. military spokesman, Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, told NPR that the information was classified at the request of the Afghan government for operational security reasons.

"As a sovereign nation, Afghanistan has the right to keep certain information regarding its security classified," Gresback said. "The government of Afghanistan has determined that this information may give the enemy an advantage, and the United States and USFOR-A is respecting Afghanistan's position on that."

When asked why this information was deemed an operational security matter even though it was routinely released in the past, Gresback said that question would be best answered by the Afghan government.

"The Afghans know what's going on; the Taliban knows what's going on; the U.S. military knows what's going on," John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, told The New York Times. "The only people who don't know what's going on are the people paying for it."

The classified information from this report will be given on request to Congress, the Department of Defense and the State Department.

"The government usually doesn't classify good news," Sopko added, according to the Times. "I don't want any nameless, faceless Afghan bureaucrat telling the American taxpayer what they ought to know."

President Trump announced a new strategy in Afghanistan in August, committing more U.S. troops to the war without a timetable. The recent commitment of about 3,000 additional troops will bring the total number of U.S. service members in Afghanistan to between 14,000 and 15,000, according to the watchdog.

The amount of territory under Afghan government control continues to decline. The report, quoting the U.S. military, says that "approximately 56.8% of the country's 407 districts are under Afghan government control or influence," a more than 6 percent decline from last year.

Civilian casualties due to coalition and Afghan airstrikes have risen by 52 percent in the first nine months of 2017 compared with the same period last year, the report states, citing the U.N. It says 38 percent of the 177 civilian airstrike deaths resulted from strikes by international forces.

The report notes that U.S. Forces-Afghanistan disagrees with the U.N.'s methodology on this measure, saying that international airstrikes caused 43 civilian casualties in these nine months.

The U.N.'s number also appears to run counter to what Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview with NPR's Tom Bowman in October.

"We've seen an increase in [civilian casualties] caused by the insurgents and an actual reduction in [civilian casualties] caused by the coalition and Afghans," said Nicholson. "And the [civilian casualties] caused by U.S. airstrikes is less than 2 percent. It's very low."

While the report does not provide precise casualty figures or information about how many people were leaving or joining the Afghan forces, it does give approximate figures for troop levels — and it's clear they have declined significantly.

The report, quoting the U.S. military, said ANDSF numbers approximately 320,000 troops — "a roughly 9,000-person decrease from last quarter." It did not indicate what caused the change.

The U.S. military has classified information about Afghan military capabilities once before, according to the report. It happened in early 2015 under the Obama administration. According to SIGAR, "NATO-led Resolute Support classified the answers to some 31 SIGAR questions, only to declassify the bulk of them a few days after SIGAR published its January 30, 2015, quarterly report."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.