Before Trump’s Speech, More Bad News From the Afghan Front

As Trump prepares to rally support for the 16-year mission in his State of the Union address, the Pentagon is reluctant to divulge details about the war effort.

An Afghan army soldier takes position near an office of the British charity Save the Children during an ongoing attack in Jalalabad on Jan. 24.
 (Noorullah Shirzada /AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan army soldier takes position near an office of the British charity Save the Children during an ongoing attack in Jalalabad on Jan. 24. (Noorullah Shirzada /AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan government forces are struggling to turn the tide against Taliban insurgents, and the U.S. military is seeking to block the release of information about the war’s progress, a government watchdog said Tuesday.

The gloomy assessment came hours before U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, when he is expected to tout the military campaign in Afghanistan, where he has sent several thousand reinforcements and approved a major expansion of bombing raids. About 15,000 U.S. troops are now on the ground, more than 16 years after American forces first deployed there after the 9/11 attacks.

In its latest report on the state of the war, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, wrote that the U.S. military had ordered it not to publish a range of data about how much territory is under the control of the Afghan government or insurgents — even though the information is not classified and had previously been released.

“The Defense Department instructed SIGAR not to release to the public data on the number of districts, and the population living in them, controlled or influenced by the Afghan government or by the insurgents, or contested by both,” the inspector general’s office wrote. It also blocked SIGAR from divulging numbers on the size of Afghan security forces and renewed a ban on releasing details about Afghan troops’ casualties and attrition, it said.

The number of districts under Afghan government control has been on the decline since at least January 2016, according to numbers released by the U.S. military. The inspector general called the censorship “troubling,” as the figures were a key indicator for lawmakers and the public to assess the war effort.

“I don’t think it does any good for the pursuit of American objectives here to not be transparent about progress in the war,” said Laurel Miller of the Rand Corp. think tank, who served as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Barack Obama administration.

“If there’s some disagreement about the facts of the situation on the ground, then that’s a disagreement that can be hashed out while still enabling the public to be informed,” she told Foreign Policy.

After the inspector general’s report was published, the Pentagon reversed course and released the data on the control of Afghan districts to a number of media outlets. But by then, the Defense Department had come under sharp criticism.

Apart from the feud over what information should be provided publicly, the SIGAR report offered a grim portrait of the war effort.

Despite a threefold increase in U.S.-led airstrikes compared to last year, the Afghan government has not managed to gain back control over more of the population. Civilian casualties overall have increased 13 percent, and casualties are up for U.S. troops as well.

Last year, 11 American troops were killed and 99 wounded in Afghanistan. That is double the number of service members killed in action there compared to 2015 and 2016.

And despite $8.7 billion spent by the United States trying to counter the opium trade and a series of recent air raids on drug labs, opium production — and the total area under cultivation — is at a record high, according to SIGAR. The area devoted to poppy farming is roughly equivalent to the state of Rhode Island, it said.

Ambitious plans to develop the country’s mineral resources, a top priority championed by the Trump administration, also have produced disappointing results. “Despite Afghanistan’s large and well-documented resources, mining revenues in 2016 supplied only 0.3% of the country’s $6.5 billion national budget,” the SIGAR office wrote.

With nearly a half billion U.S. government funds already sunk into the project, “future efforts should be accompanied by polite skepticism, caution, risk management, and vigilance for unintended consequences,” the report said.

In the days leading up to Trump’s State of the Union address, the Afghan capital was hit by three deadly attacks that killed more than 130 people. And the president’s reaction to the violence created confusion over his administration’s policy. Trump ruled out any talks with the Taliban, contradicting his own diplomats and commanders, who have long stated that American military action was meant to pressure the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The argument between the inspector general and the military coincides with a bid by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, to try to shape public perceptions of America’s longest foreign war. Western officials say the commander believes the United States and its allies have allowed an overly negative image of the war effort to take hold.

But Nicholson’s first challenge will be to ensure the president, who has openly admitted he was reluctant to approve more troops for Afghanistan last year, does not lose patience with the mission.

A newly released National Security Strategy clearly identified other states, such as North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China, as the top threat to U.S. interests, with terrorism ranking lower. That puts Nicholson in a potentially difficult position, said Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has advised U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“The Afghanistan War is not the priority right now,” he said.

FP’s Elias Groll contributed to this article.

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