Secrecy Shrouds U.S. Development of Afghan Security Forces
For the first time in eight years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has classified assigned strength data used to measure the development of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF). US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), the command authority responsible for training the ANDSF, classified its data on Afghan casualties and attrition rates, as well as details on the operational readiness of US-supplied weapons, vehicles and supplies. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, these numbers are generally the most prominent indicators of the issues still plaguing the ANDSF. High casualty and attrition rates, low morale, and poor administrative support systems have been an unfortunate staple of ANDSF development.
Assigned strength data is provided quarterly to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an oversight body created by Congress to publicly report on Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts. However, in SIGAR’s most recent quarterly report issued Oct. 30, it notes that “According to USFOR-A, a recent legal review determined that…USFOR-A must withhold, restrict, or classify the data as long as the Afghan government has classified it.”
SIGAR did not explicitly note in its report why the Afghan government, and subsequently DoD, chose now to classify ANDSF assigned strength figures.
While DoD’s pivot to privacy is unexpected, it is not out of line with President Trump’s newly announced Afghanistan strategy this past August. The motives to classify this type of data could originate from the same concerns that led Trump to reject the establishment of artificial timetables in Afghanistan. Both moves act to remove actionable intelligence that the Taliban could use for recruitment and propaganda purposes.
On the other hand, more likely the action will be seen as an attempt to cover up failures in the US effort to develop a capable ANDSF. Billions in US funding continues to pour into programs looking to bolster Afghan forces. Paid for by the American taxpayer, sluggish progress of such programs threatens to make the aging and beleaguered effort unpopular at home. Special inspector general for Afghanistan, John Sopko, said as much in a clear-eyed warning to The New York Times, “The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. military knows what’s going on. The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”
Furthermore, the US role in Afghanistan has increased in the last year despite the expressed long-term goal of winding down American personnel and handing off security to Afghan counterparts. SIGAR highlighted a “sharp increase in American air strikes in the last several months [indicating] US forces are taking a more active combat role.” SIGAR also estimates that once August deployment orders are fulfilled, those US forces will total approximately 14,000-15,000 military personnel in-country, not including civilians and contractors.
The increased US role is likely in response to the alarmingly high rate of casualties suffered by Afghan forces in the face of relentless Taliban offensives that have continued to capture and contest increasing amounts of territory across the country. These fatality rates, of course, are the same numbers that will no longer be made available to the public.
SIGAR’s quarterly report can be viewed in its entirety here.