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U.S. Suddenly Goes Quiet on Effort to Bolster Afghan Forces

The United States has spent about $65 billion to build Afghanistan's army and police forces, and until this month the American-led coalition regularly shared details on how the money was being put to use and on the Afghan forces' progress.

But as of this month, ask a question as seemingly straightforward as the number of Afghan soldiers and police officers in uniform, and the military coalition offers a singularly unrevealing answer: The information is now considered classified.

The American outlay for weapons and gear for Afghan forces? Classified. The cost of teaching Afghan soldiers to read and write? Even that is now a secret.

The military command's explanation for making the change is that such information could endanger American and Afghan lives, even though the data had been released every quarter over the past six years, and Afghan officials do not consider the information secret.

But as the Obama administration is seeking to declare the long war in Afghanistan officially over, at least from an American standpoint, the move to classify data about the Afghan forces removes one of the most crucial measures for assessing the accomplishments of the international coalition there. And it raises stark questions about the state of the fight against the Taliban, coming after a year in which the Afghan forces took record-high casualties as they battled heavy militant offensives.

The reality is that the United States is still deeply invested in Afghanistan and that it plans to spend billions of dollars to keep the Afghans armed, fed and fighting. At the same time, roughly 9,500 American service members and thousands of contractors remain in the country to help the Afghan forces with the crucial art of military logistics and to build an air force.

Through October, getting a sense of how the American-led project to build a viable Afghan military and police force was progressing could be readily gleaned from quarterly reports released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the American government's watchdog for spending in Afghanistan.

The inspector general's last report, released in October and covering a period through August, included data on the size of the army and the police force -- just over 181,000 soldiers and 152,000 police officers at that point. The report found that each force was at about 97 percent of its targeted strength.

It broke down the Afghan military's manpower numbers by corps, and included data on attrition for the army and police, which sustained record casualties and struggled with desertion, a problem that has persisted for years. Between September and August, for instance, 36,000 soldiers were dropped from the army's rolls because they had been killed or disabled, or had deserted or concluded their commitment for reasons honorable and dishonorable.

None of that information will be publicly updated for the final quarter of last year in the inspector general's latest quarterly report to Congress, which was provided to The New York Times ahead of its release on Thursday. Instead, the numbers will now be included in a classified appendix, viewable only by government officials with high-level security clearances.

"The classification of this volume of data," the inspector general said in its report, "is unprecedented."

Initially, the coalition also tried to classify the number of American troops in Afghanistan, a figure that was publicly announced last year by the Obama administration, said an American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified material.

Though the coalition did not end up going that far, it did classify nearly every piece of data used by the inspector general to assess the Afghan security forces.

In a letter to the inspector general, Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of coalition forces, said the information now had to be kept secret to protect the lives of American service members and their Afghan allies, arguing that the Taliban could use the data "to sharpen their attacks."

"I cannot comment upon the precise reason why certain information was considered unclassified in the past," General Campbell wrote. "However, I am compelled to also protect the lives of those individuals who could be put at risk by the release of sensitive information."

Some of the information could certainly be seen as demoralizing, such as the attrition rates within Afghan forces. But the potential for embarrassment is not considered a legitimate rationale for classifying information, and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have expressed skepticism about General Campbell's move.

"With few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public," said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, whose staff was briefed on the inspector general's report this week. "Suddenly classifying information that was public for years raises questions."

Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, was more pointed: "I'm offended that this previously unclassified information is now being classified.

"Public access to this information is one of the most powerful tools we've got to ensure we're holding our government accountable, and these reports remain as vital as ever to oversight of taxpayer-financed Afghan infrastructure," she said.

For years, the inspector general's quarterly reports were among the few easily accessible sources for information about the state of Afghan forces, in addition to other major areas of American spending in Afghanistan.

In the latest report, that information has been reduced to a few top-line spending figures, such as how much has been spent on the transportation for the army ($11.5 billion) or the total spent on police training and operations ($3.5 billion).

Where the inspector general once offered breakdowns of what that money had bought, its report now includes boilerplate saying that details "can be found in Appendix E of this report" -- that is, the classified section of the report, which even many of the people who work in Congress cannot view, and is completely off limits to the general public.

[Source: By Matthew Rosenberg, The New York Times, Washington, 29Jan15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 05Feb15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.