Classifying Defeat: Hiding Data on the Losing Afghan War
"I kind of get it. The news out of Afghanistan is so awful, and 'progress' so fitful, that I wouldn’t want to report it either"
The longest war in U.S. history has cost 2400 American lives and nearly a trillion dollars. Still, the government in Washington conceals the truth and most of the populace yawns. By now there should be no doubt that America has lost the battle for Afghanistan, placing it in good company with the British and Soviet empires that failed to conquer that famously xenophobic country. I just wish the Trump administration – as self-touting “truth-tellers” – would admit it. Seriously, a public acceptance of defeat would be strangely refreshing. But don’t count on it!
Trump and company have a better idea. They’ll just stop telling the American people anything about how this perpetual war is going. Seriously, the powers that be have taken just about all the relevant, measurable data on the war and either stopped tracking it or deemed it classified. How’s that for some Orwellian political spin?
The thing is, I kind of get it. The news out of Afghanistan is so awful, and “progress” so fitful, that I wouldn’t want to report it either. Too bad these are life and death matters and that in an (ostensible) republic the people are owed the truth about the wars fought in their name. Call me old fashioned but I still value facts and transparency.
So let us consider what exactly they are hiding from us. It began with last year’s announcement that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) – the congressionally mandated watchdog on all aspects of this war – would no longer report Afghan Security Force (ASF) casualty data. It’s now classified. I wonder why.
Could it be that the US trained and equipped (to the tune of some $70 billion) Afghan military is suffering unsustainable casualties, is losing troops faster than it can recruit?
Maybe its because Washington finds it inconvenient to admit that the ASF is nowhere near its target personnel strength, that desertions and absence without leave are rampant in the ranks, and that the Afghan GDP is insufficient to pay for its own security forces.
After all, every president from Bush to Obama to Trump has told us that advising the ASF is America’s number one priority and the key to a successful exit. Given that, one would think it rather important to face the truth about the utterly insufficient Afghan military and police force. Instead it’s classified. You’re no longer allowed to know that discomfiting truth.
Then, last week, we were told that the US military will no longer track district-level insurgent or government control or influence. In other words, data on what percentage of the country is controlled by the Afghan government versus the Taliban. Sounds like vital info, no? Apparently, according to the US command in Afghanistan, that district data “was of limited decision-making value to the Commander.” That’s news to me! Even as a company commander, a lowly captain, I tracked and reported data on the relative security and stability of even individual villages in my sector. It’s how we knew if we were making progress or not!
So why would the Trump administration really decide to hide, or just stop tracking, this pivotal information? Could it be that the Taliban has been progressively gaining ground and now control or contest more of the country – about 50 percent – than at any time in this 18-year-old war? Surely it’d be rather inconvenient to admit that the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul is losing control of half the country. The solution: stop keeping track altogether.
Seriously, rather than assess the data and decide either 1) that the situation on the ground demands a new strategy or more American investment; or 2) that the war is unwinnable and it was always an absurd pipe dream to think we could forge a Jeffersonian Democracy in remote Central Asia, and thus cut our losses and withdraw. Now, I’m a strong proponent of option two and have said so time and again. Still, at least option one would grapple with reality rather than ignore it.
Look, SIGAR is a government-sanctioned watchdog agency, not a touchy-feely human rights nonprofit. These aren’t hippie peaceniks, not by a long shot. Perhaps we should listen to what they have to say, because, well, it is really disturbing. Last week, John Sopko, the inspector general himself, asserted that “Almost every indicia, metric for success or failure is now classified or nonexistent…Over time, it’s been classified or it’s no longer being collected … The classification in some areas is needless.” Translation: we are losing the war and hiding that fact from the people! That’s a big deal, America!
There are other indicators that this war has run off the rails, and one suspects this data will also soon be classified or “no longer tracked.” For example, the fact that 2018 was the first year in which U.S. and allied Afghan forces killed more civilians than the Taliban. So much for winning hearts and minds.
It seems Washington has taught Kabul to fight in its own image, confident – despite all the historical evidence to the contrary – that it can bomb its way to victory. Too bad killing innocent civilians is a sure way to alienate the populace and feed an insurgency. If you didn’t know any better, you might think Washington is trying to prolong the war indefinitely.
Remember that the owners of this country – the real owners in the corporate military-industrial complex – count on your apathy. They count on a distracted populace. They count on you not caring so they can perpetuate ill-advised, counterproductive (but quite profitable) wars indefinitely. We’re through the looking glass, folks – sleepwalking to defeat on the inertia of uniquely American forever war. If we’re not careful we might lose our republic along with the war.
So I say lets demand better for once. That we demand transparency and the truth about the war in Afghanistan. That we demand to know what is done in our name and what thousands have sacrificed their lives for. That would mean millions of calls to our congressmen, marching in the streets, shutting down the system if necessary. I can see it, almost like a dream – a sea of Americans saying no to a losing war, no to the plunder of our treasury, no to gradual roll back of our civil liberties.
Only then I wake up from my daydream, gaze around the airport, and…everyone is too busy on their iPhones to care. And that’s the real America. So the war must go on…
Danny Sjursen served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan