The Expanding Secrecy of the Afghanistan War

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.

More Troops for Afghanistan?, and More from CRS

The possibility that more U.S. troops will be deployed to Afghanistan, a move that is reportedly under consideration by the Trump Administration, was critically examined by the Congressional Research Service in a new report.

One source of uncertainty concerns the shifting U.S. strategy in the region.

“Since the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have pursued a variety of different strategic objectives,” including counterterrorism and nation-building. But “Within the military campaign alone, those objectives are, at times, in tension with each other,” CRS said. “At present, it is difficult to discern an overall, coherent strategy for Afghanistan, although this may be resolved by the Trump Administration’s review of U.S. activities in that region.”

“Given the complexity of the campaign, along with the imprecise nature of U.S. goals for the region and absent a definitive statement from the Trump Administration regarding its priorities, it is currently difficult to evaluate the likely impact that additional forces may have.” See Additional Troops for Afghanistan? Considerations for Congress, May 19, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated May 19, 2017

A Shift in the International Security Environment: Potential Implications for Defense–Issues for Congress, updated May 19, 2017

Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress, updated May 19, 2017

21st Century U.S. Energy Sources: A Primer, May 19, 2017

The Value of Energy Tax Incentives for Different Types of Energy Resources: In Brief, May 18, 2017

OPEC and Non-OPEC Crude Oil Production Agreement: Compliance Status, CRS Insight, May 17, 2017

North American Free Trade Agreement: Notification for Renegotiation, CRS Insight, May 19, 2017

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA): Compensation Related to Exposure to Radiation from Atomic Weapons Testing and Uranium Mining, updated May 18, 2017

Obstruction of Justice Statutes: Legal Issues Concerning FBI Investigations, Specific Intent, and Executive Branch Personnel, CRS Legal Sidebar, May 19, 2017

As an institution, the Congressional Research Service is facing significant upheaval in the near term as many of its most senior analysts are expected to retire, with attendant loss of expertise. “Roughly about 25% of our staff will be eligible to retire in the next fiscal year,” CRS director Dr. Mary Mazanec told the House Legislative Appropriations subcommittee last week.

88 Days to Kandahar: The CIA in Afghanistan

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Central Intelligence Agency was tasked to lead the campaign against Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. There were some initial successes, as the Taliban was driven from its strongholds and a new Afghan government rose to power. Yet the process was often chaotic, confused and haphazard.

“Operating at full throttle, constantly improvising, we seldom had occasion to stop and consider what we were doing, or how.”

That sentence from the new Afghanistan War memoir “88 Days to Kandahar” by Robert L. Grenier, the former CIA chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, could serve as a summary of much of the book (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Although Grenier claims to find romance in the profession of intelligence, there is little or nothing romantic about the experiences he describes here. Instead, it’s one damn thing after another, often coming at an excruciating cost. Far from clandestinely orchestrating events, he and his fellow CIA operatives are mostly at the mercy of circumstances beyond their ability to control.

Miscommunication, petty jealousy, equipment failures, manipulative colleagues, bureaucratic rivals, and fickle allies all make an appearance in this blow-by-blow account of the opening CIA campaign in Afghanistan.

“The truth was that I was caught, once again, in the fog of mutual incomprehension between Washington and Islamabad.”

Mr. Grenier himself seems like a decent sort, competent, and well-intentioned. But his story is mostly sad, and disturbingly fatalistic.

“As I look back, I fail to see how the history of the past dozen-plus years could have been different,” he writes.

Those initial successes against the Taliban were both fortuitous and easily misunderstood. “There was hardly any genius at work in defeating a primitive army, employing primitive tactics, with uncontested airpower and precision-guided munitions.”

With the Bush Administration’s subsequent decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003, U.S. policy making became ever more incoherent and misguided, in Grenier’s telling.

As the CIA representative to the NSC Deputies’ Committee, “I had a front-row seat on some of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions in our history. It was a deeply disillusioning experience.”

“The meetings I attended at the pinnacle of the foreign policy bureaucracy were notable for what wasn’t said, rather than what was: mendacity and indirection were the orders of the day,” Grenier writes.

It only got worse as operations in Afghanistan dragged on. Yet the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces on a fixed, predetermined schedule regardless of other strategic considerations is a fateful mistake, he says.

“The whole enterprise, in my view, was criminal:  Hundreds of U.S. servicemen lost their lives, their limbs, or suffered debilitating head injuries to IEDs while on patrol in Kandahar or Helmand, taking territory that their superiors should have known could never be held by Afghan forces.”

“After a span of a dozen years, the longest war in American history, we had succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and degrading the organization responsible for the attacks on our shores. But regarding arguably our most important objective—to deny South-Central Asia as a future safehaven for international terrorists—a combination of unwise policies, inept execution, and myopic zeal had produced a situation arguably worse than the one with which we started.”

“For all the billions spent and lives lost, there is little to show, and most of that will not long survive our departure.”

Mr. Grenier’s relentlessly grim tale includes a passing portrait of “Greg,” the newly appointed director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (as noted last week in the Washington Post). It also provides various insights into CIA bureaucratic culture.

We learn, for example, that “the Directorate of Operations [now the National Clandestine Service] does not tolerate profane or abusive language in cable traffic.”