WASHINGTON - An oft-cited assessment used to measure U.S. progress in Afghanistan, recently tossed aside by commanders, is still being collected, but is no longer available to the public.
Earlier this year, the U.S.-commanded Resolute Support mission said it stopped collecting the so-called district-level stability assessments, which measure the number of the country's districts under government or insurgent control or influence, because the information was "of limited decision-making value."
But U.S. intelligence officials appear to feel differently, putting a high enough premium on the data that it is now classified.
“The U.S. intelligence community continues to produce their own district control assessments, one of which is provided in the classified appendix to this report,” the Defense Department’s Inspector General wrote last month.
Military officials say the assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies are nearly identical to the ones previously provided by Resolute Support, but contain a higher level of detail that has never been made public.
“The data that [Resolute Support] previously reported was in summary, unclassified form,” Pentagon spokeswoman, Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, told VOA.
“DoD has not requested that they [U.S. intelligence agencies] continue to produce these assessments and defers to those agencies to explain why they do so,” she added.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which first reported the U.S. military’s decision to stop providing the district-level stability assessments, has expressed growing concerns about the amount of information that is no longer being collected or which has been unnecessarily classified.
"Despite its limitations, the control data was the only unclassified metric provided by [Resolute Support] that consistently tracked changes to the security situation on the ground," SIGAR said at the time.
SIGAR also noted previous commanders of the Resolute Support mission had "cited its importance in public statements."
The lack of transparency has raised concern on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t entirely trust the Trump administration’s approach,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith told reporters Monday, describing the White House’s approach as, “If the facts don’t match, we’ll just change them."
Smith said he has approached Pentagon officials about being more open and that he has been given assurances the Defense Department wants to be more transparent. But he said he has not gotten any indication on whether more information on the Afghanistan district control assessments will be made available.
Resolute Support’s decision to eliminate the stability assessments came after successive reports showed the Afghan government's control of the country falling to record lows.
In its November 2018 report, SIGAR said the Afghan government controlled or influenced only 56 percent of the country's districts, at the time the lowest level recorded since the watchdog began tracking district control in November 2015.
In SIGAR's subsequent report, issued this past January, that number had slipped to less than 54 percent, as the Afghan government lost seven districts to the Taliban.
Earlier this month, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, Col. David Butler, defended the decision to stop collecting the data.
“The district stability assessment that was previously provided by [the Department of Defense] was redundant and did little to serve our mission of protecting our citizens and allies," he said. “The intelligence community produces a district stability assessment which is available to SIGAR.”
But a SIGAR official told VOA the office had never been given any indication it could get the intelligence community assessments and, until now, it had not been told whether such information would be made available or if it could be made public.
If the district control assessments done by U.S. intelligence agencies are not made public, it would continue a trend that has alarmed U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko.
"What we are finding now is almost every indicia, metrics, however you want to phrase it, for success or failure is now classified or non-existent," he told reporters in late April.
"The Afghan people obviously know which districts are controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows it," he said. "The only people who don't know what is going on are the people who are paying for all of this, and that's the American taxpayer."