Hours after a Pentagon watchdog criticised the Defence Department for blocking the inclusion of unclassified information in his reports on the war in Afghanistan, a US military spokesman said the information had been withheld because of “human error.”
In a report published just before midnight Monday, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said he was unable to publish information on Afghan force strength or on the amount of territory that’s held by the government. That represented a tightening of secrecy protocols on the quarterly report, a key gauge of US progress in what has become America’s longest war.
“Historically, the number of districts controlled or influenced by the government has been falling,” wrote the inspector general, John Sopko.
Captain Tom Gresback, a Defense Department spokesman, said it wasn’t the Pentagon’s intention to withhold or classify the information, which was available in prior reports.
“A human error in labelling occurred,” Gresback said in a statement. “The data is not classified and there was no intent to withhold it unnecessarily.”
Providing the information left out of Sopko’s report, Gresback said that as of October 2017, about 56 per cent of Afghanistan’s population lived in areas under government control, with 14 per cent controlled by insurgents and the remaining 30 per cent in contested areas.
Whether or not the reporting issue was due to human error, it’s been clear that Afghanistan’s security situation has been worsening in recent years.
President Donald Trump condemned a Taliban suicide attack in downtown Kabul on Saturday that killed 95 people and wounded 158 others as “despicable” and called on the world to act against the Islamic fundamentalist group. While US policy has long been to use military pressure to force the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government, Trump said on Monday that “innocent people are being killed left and right” so “we don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time, but it’s going to be a long time.”
In August, Trump agreed to a Pentagon request to send 4,000 additional US troops, including special forces, to be deployed in Afghanistan. He also gave commanders in the field more authority to strike the Taliban as well as Islamic State and Al Qaida terrorists.
The US. Air Force dropped 653 bombs and missiles in October, a threefold increase from a year earlier and a record high since 2012, according to the inspector general’s report. But he said those actions have yet to increase the Afghan government’s control over its population.
US casualties doubled in the first 11 months of 2017 compared with the same periods in 2015 and 2016, according to military statistics cited by Sopko. In 2017 data through Nov. 26, 11 US military personnel were killed in Afghanistan, and 99 were wounded.
The military said civilian casualties rose 13 per cent to 4,474 from June 1 through Nov. 26, according to the report, with about a third of those deaths. According to the United Nations, more than 26,500 civilians have been killed and an additional 49,000 have been injured since the conflict began in 2001.
Despite $8.7 billion spent on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, opium production was up 87 per cent in the first 11 months of 2017 from the same period a year earlier, an all-time record, the inspector general reported.
Although the Pentagon says air strikes demolished drug labs, destroying $80 million of drug money and cutting off $16 million of direct revenue to the Taliban, the inspector general’s report “questions the accuracy of these figures.”
“The labs being destroyed are cheap and easy to replace,” the report said. “According to some estimates they only take three or four days to replace.”
On the economy, the inspector general offered a note of caution about Afghanistan’s mining industry. Although the US government estimated that previously unknown Afghan mineral deposits were valued at almost $1 trillion, the report says the US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since 2009 trying to stimulate and support mineral-resource development in Afghanistan without much success.
Mining revenue in 2016 supplied only 0.3 per cent of the country’s $6.5 billion national budget. Plans to develop the country’s mineral resources have been stymied by insecurity, corruption, weak governance, and a lack of infrastructure, the report said.