The Expanding Secrecy of the Afghanistan War

By Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, 8 February 2018

This article was originally published as: Steven Aftergood, The Expanding Secrecy of the Afghanistan War, Secrecy News (blog), 7 February 2018, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

Last year, dozens of categories of previously unclassified information about Afghan military forces were designated as classified, making it more difficult to publicly track the progress of the war in Afghanistan.

The categories of now-classified information were tabulated in a memo dated October 31, 2017 that was prepared by the staff of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko.

In the judgment of the memo authors, "None of the material now classified or otherwise restricted discloses information that could threaten the U.S. or Afghan missions (such as detailed strategy, plans, timelines, or tactics)."

But "All of the [newly withheld] data include key metrics and assessments that are essential to understanding mission success for the reconstruction of Afghanistan's security institutions and armed forces."

So what used to be available that is now being withheld?

"It is basically casualty, force strength, equipment, operational readiness, attrition figures, as well as performance assessments," said Mr. Sopko, the SIGAR.

"Using the new [classification criteria], I would not be able to tell you in a public setting or the American people how their money is being spent," Mr. Sopko told Congress at a hearing last November.

The SIGAR staff memo tabulating the new classification categories was included as an attachment for the hearing record, which was published last month. See Overview of 16 Years of Involvement in Afghanistan, hearing before the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, November 1, 2017.

In many cases, the information was classified by NATO or the Pentagon at the request of the Government of Afghanistan.

"Do you think that it is an appropriate justification for DOD to classify previously unclassified information based on a request from the Afghan Government?," asked Rep. Val Demings (D-FL). "Why or why not?"

"I do not because I believe in transparency," replied Mr. Sopko, "and I think the loss of transparency is bad not only for us, but it is also bad for the Afghan people."

"All of this [now classified] material is historical in nature (usually between one and three months old) because of delays incurred by reporting time frames, and thus only provides 'snapshot' data points for particular periods of time in the past," according to the SIGAR staff memo.

"All of the data points [that were] classified or restricted are 'top-line' (not unit-level) data. SIGAR currently does not publicly report potentially sensitive, unit-specific data."

Yesterday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) asked Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis about the growing restrictions on information about the war in Afghanistan.

"We are now increasing the number of our troops in Afghanistan, and after 16 years, the American people have a right to know of their successes. Some of that, I'm sure it is classified information, which I can understand. But I also know that we're not getting the kind of information that we need to get to know what successes we're having. And after 16 years, I do not think we're having any successes," Rep. Jones said.

Secretary Mattis said that the latest restriction of unclassified information about the extent of Taliban or government control over Afghanistan that was withheld from the January 2018 SIGAR quarterly report had been "a mistake." He added, "That information is now available." But Secretary Mattis did not address the larger pattern of classifying previously unclassified information about Afghan forces that was discussed at the November 2017 hearing.