Pen­tagon flip-flops, says gag on Afghan war data a mis­take

‘Hu­man er­ror’ to blame for block of info to fed au­di­tor.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Robert Burns and Lolita C. Bal­dor

In an abrupt WASH­ING­TON — re­ver­sal, the U.S. mil­i­tary Tues­day said it made a mis­take when it or­dered an in­de­pen­dent fed­eral au­di­tor to stop pro­vid­ing the pub­lic with in­for­ma­tion about U.S. war ef­forts in Afghanistan that help to mea­sure how the 16-year-old stale­mated war is go­ing.

Just hours after the re­port was pub­licly re­leased, the U.S.-led NATO coali­tion in Afghanistan is­sued a state­ment blam­ing “hu­man er­ror” for the or­der, and pro­vided a few seg­ments of the data that has been re­stricted. The newly re­leased in­for­ma­tion re­vealed that 44 per­cent of Afghanistan is con­tested or un­der the con­trol of in­sur­gents.

Other pre­vi­ously avail­able in­for­ma­tion on the size, at­tri­tion and per­for­mance of the Afghan forces con­tinue to be un­avail­able.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has an­nounced a new Afghanistan strat­egy aimed at break­ing a bat­tle­field stale­mate by ac­cel­er­at­ing Afghan-led op­er­a­tions against the Tal­iban and other in­sur­gent groups in the coun­try. On Mon­day, Trump railed against the re­cent string of at­tacks in Afghanistan, and ruled out any U.S. dis­cus­sions with the Tal­iban as part of the ef­fort to seek peace talks be­tween the Afghan gov­ern­ment and the in­sur­gents.

The au­dit­ing agency, es­tab­lished by Congress and known as the Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanistan Re­con­struc­tion, or SIGAR, re­vealed the new gag or­der in a three-month as­sess­ment of con­di­tions in Afghanistan re­leased overnight.

The re­stric­tions seemed to con­tra­dict pre­vi­ous Pen­tagon as­ser­tions that it was striv­ing to be more trans­par­ent about the U.S. war cam­paigns across Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

In re­sponse to the re­lease of the re­port, Navy Capt. Tom Gres­back, coali­tion spokesman, said Tues­day that about 56 per­cent of the coun­try’s 407 districts are un­der Afghan gov­ern­ment con­trol, 30 per­cent are con­tested and 14 per­cent are un­der in­sur­gent con­trol.

“It was NOT the in­tent of Res­o­lute Sup­port to with­hold or clas­sify in­for­ma­tion which was avail­able in prior re­ports,” Gres­back said in an email. “A hu­man er­ror in la­bel­ing oc­curred.”

Late last year, a Pen­tagon re­port said the Afghan gov­ern­ment has con­trol or in­flu­ence over 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, while in­sur­gents had con­trol or in­flu­ence over ap­prox­i­mately 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, with the re­main­der con­tested.

In Novem­ber, Gen. John Ni­chol­son told Pen­tagon re­porters that about 64 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion was con­trolled by the gov­ern­ment, 24 per­cent live in con­tested ar­eas, and the Tal­iban con­trol the re­main­ing 12 per­cent. Nei­ther the Pen­tagon nor Ni­chol­son de­tails the num­ber of districts held by each side, so it is dif­fi­cult to com­pare that with the pop­u­la­tion fig­ures re­leased by Gres­back.

Over the years, the SIGAR au­dit­ing ef­fort has re­vealed many du­bi­ous prac­tices by the U.S., in­clud­ing in­stances of con­trac­tor fraud. Since Jan­uary 2016 it had pub­lished data on the num­ber of gov­ern­ing districts con­trolled by Kabul, the num­ber con­trolled by the Tal­iban, and the num­ber that are con­tested.

John Sopko, head of the au­dit­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion, ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment that the Pen­tagon ini­tially had for­bid­den re­lease of the data on rel­a­tive con­trol of the gov­ern­ing districts.

“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,” he added.

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