WASHINGTON - Assessing the security situation in Afghanistan is getting increasingly difficult now that Western military officials have started withholding some data on militant attacks across the country, according to a key U.S. government watchdog.
The warning from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, also known as SIGAR, comes as hopes for an end to decades of war appear to be fading following February’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban, due to political infighting in Kabul and a steady increase in Taliban-initiated violence since the deal was signed.
Only according to SIGAR, the full extent of the Taliban’s offensive remains something of a mystery because coalition forces monitoring the violence are keeping the intelligence to themselves.
“NATO Resolute Support (RS) restricted from public release data on the number of enemy-initiated attacks (EIA) that took place this quarter,” Inspector General John Sopko wrote in the quarterly report issued Friday.
“This EIA data was one of the last remaining metrics SIGAR was able to use to report publicly on the security situation in Afghanistan,” he added, noting it was the first time the NATO-led mission had refused to provide the figures since 2018.
NATO officials defended their decision, telling SIGAR data on enemy-initiated attacks “are now a critical part of deliberative interagency discussions regarding ongoing political negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban.”
However, they also said that while the Taliban generally refrained from attacking coalition forces after signing the agreement with the U.S. in late February, “they increased attacks against ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] to levels above seasonal norms” during March.
The last available data for enemy attacks, covering the last three months of 2019, before the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed, showed enemy attacks trending significantly higher.
“Both overall enemy-initiated attacks and effective enemy-initiated attacks [resulting in casualties] during the fourth quarter of 2019 exceeded same-period levels in every year since recording began in 2010,” SIGAR’s January report said.
This is not the first time SIGAR has criticized the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan for hiding or manipulating data.
SIGAR also chastised U.S. defense officials in May 2019 after Resolute Support stopped providing so-called district-level stability assessments, which showed Afghan forces losing ground to the Taliban.
At the time, SIGAR said Resolute Support officials claimed the assessments, showing which districts were under government or insurgent control, were “of limited decision-making value.”
U.S. defense officials also said the assessments were “not indicative of effectiveness of the South Asia strategy or of progress toward security and stability.”
"We have incentivized lying to Congress," SIGAR’s John Sopko told lawmakers this past January. "The whole incentive is to show success and to ignore the failure. And when there's too much failure, classify it or don't report it."
For now, the security situation remains murky.
Officials with the U.S.-led Resolute Support mission told SIGAR the Afghan government maintains control of Kabul, provincial capitals, major population centers and most district centers but that Taliban forces are vying for control in some areas even while reducing attacks against Afghan forces in provincial capitals.
But Afghan officials have accused the Taliban of killing more than 100 Afghan security forces, while also killing or wounding up to 800 civilians, since signing the February peace-building deal with the U.S.
And while both U.S. officials and the United Nations found overall civilian casualties decreased during the first three months of 2020, the United Nations said civilian deaths due to anti-government forces, mainly the Taliban, rose by 22 percent, including the deaths of 150 children.
Late last month, the Taliban also rejected calls for a cease-fire for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
There is also growing uncertainty about the impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on Afghanistan.
So far, the government has reported just under 2,200 confirmed cases and 64 deaths, but the SIGAR report warns the worst is yet to come.
“Afghanistan’s numerous unique vulnerabilities — a weak health care system, widespread malnutrition, porous borders, massive internal displacement, proximity to Iran (where the disease has spread widely), and ongoing conflict — raise the possibility of significant social and economic disruption in the coming months,” it said.
Afghanistan & Pakistan Bureau Chief Ayesha Tanzeem contributed to this story.