With the drawdown nearly complete – less than 12,000 American troops are left in Afghanistan – the US military classified large amounts of key information about its billion-dollar projects in the war-ravaged nation.
It was the first time the US public had not been granted knowledge of how its government was spending money in the country still wracked by violence after more than 13 years of conflict.
While troop levels will fall to 5,500 by the end of 2015, the military’s costly Afghan mission is far from over after the US renewed its commitment, along with other nations, to provide at least $16bn through 2015, and similar levels of funding for the following two years.
According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which has closely audited the US’ successes and failings in Afghanistan, the US Congress has appropriated more than $65bn for supporting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
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A further $104bn has been spent on reconstruction and infrastructure projects.
Despite this, much of the investment seems to have been wasted, and SIGAR has over the years revealed many examples of taxpayer money being used on ineffective projects, or stolen through fraudulent schemes.
“Just recently, information our agency has publicly reported on every quarter for the last six years was suddenly classified,” said John F Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. “This left SIGAR, for the first time ever, unable to publicly report to the American taxpayer on the status of a large portion of their over $60bn investment.”
The US military force in Afghanistan – known officially as Resolute Support Mission – told Al Jazeera on Monday some information requested by SIGAR, but previously not released, would now be made available.
“USFOR-A has since gone back and separated data releasable to the public from classified ANSF readiness data based on the SIGAR’s request to release more information to the public,” Resolute Support Mission said in an email.
SIGAR said “a majority of the information” had been declassified and “we are in the process of reviewing it”.
Sensitive reports about Afghan forces will remain classified, the US military said.
The mission commander, General John Campbell, decided to classify information about the Afghan National Security Forces in August 2014 “to prevent potential adversaries from gaining critical information that could be exploited – endangering the lives of our Afghan partners and coalition forces serving alongside them”.
“General Campbell has not changed his position in regard to the importance of protecting ANSF readiness data,” it said.
Serious questions raised
SIGAR’s most recent quarterly report highlights the glaring omissions by including a list of 31 questions that were deemed classified for the first time.
These include queries about ANSF’s personnel levels, salaries and training.
“Last quarter, ISAF classified the executive summary of a report that SIGAR had used as a primary source of information on ANSF capability,” the report said. “This quarter the new Resolute Support Mission went further, classifying information SIGAR has until now used to publicly report on, among other matters, ANSF strength, attrition, equipment, personnel sustainment, infrastructure, and training.”
Despite the $65bn investment, there are still serious questions over how ready ANSF is when it comes to tackling the Taliban and other armed groups.
This has been highlighted by a recent rise in violence that coincides with a drastic fall in NATO troops on the ground.
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Previously publishable information by SIGAR had shown that despite a $200m literacy-training contract , no one appeared to know the overall literacy rate of the ANSF.
Attrition rates, through casualties and absconding, also remain high among ANSF troops.
Also restricted was a query about Department of Defense funding on infrastructure projects and equipment. Previous SIGAR investigations revealed massive spending waste when it comes to equipping ANSF.
The organisation also released two reports about the failed G222 aircraft programme for the Afghan Air Force. The Defense Department spent $486m on 20 of the Italian-made aircraft, which could not meet operational requirements in Afghanistan.
Other investigations included an inquiry into the never-used, nearly $36m command and control centre built at Camp Leatherneck, and a dry-fire training range that cost $456,669 and began to disintegrate after four months.
Assessments by the Afghan Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Interior efforts to stamp out corruption were also deemed classified.
SIGAR has previously reported that “US assistance has been provided for reconstruction without the benefit of a comprehensive anticorruption strategy.”
In particular, it has highlighted a case where at least two Afghan contractors claimed to have installed 250 culvert denial systems, used to prevent the planting of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) under road surfaces, at a total contract amount of almost $1m. The work was either not started or never completed.
SIGAR’s investigations led to an Afghan contractor and sub-contractor being charged with fraud and negligent homicide.
Resolute Support Mission, which is continuing to train ANSF beyond the US’ military involvement in the country, told Al Jazeera earlier that the new classifications would not stop SIGAR from reporting to the US Congress.
Resolute Support Mission spokesman Christopher Belcher had said the reassessment of security levels was done “to address potential concerns about operational security”, as ANSF took over responsibility for security in the country.
“We appreciate, understand, and support SIGAR’s responsibility to provide information to Congress and the American public,” Belcher said in an email.
“At the same time, we have a responsibility to protect data that could jeopardise the operational security of our Afghan partners, to include unnecessarily highlighting possible vulnerabilities and capability gaps,” he added.
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan requested that we not publicly disclose readiness data for the ANSF. This in no way hampers SIGAR’s ability to freely share classified information [to which it has access] with Congress, consistent with its mandate.
“We appreciate the function that the SIGAR provides and the recommendations that have helped make our efforts more efficient and effective.”
The decision to classify the finer details of Afghanistan spending also drew criticism from US politicians.
“I’m offended that this previously unclassified information is now being classified, in a move deeply detrimental to our efforts to root out waste and fraud,” US Senator Claire McCaskill said in a statement.
“Public access to this information is one of the most powerful tools we’ve got to ensure we’re holding our government accountable, and these reports remain as vital as ever to oversight of taxpayer-financed Afghan infrastructure.”
UPDATE: This story was updated with comment from the US military’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan confirming Monday that some declassification was made after SIGAR’s request.
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