Much Of The Post’s Afghanistan Scoop Was In Plain Sight

A bit of a deviation here from the usual fare. The Washington Post has begun to publish a series of blockbuster articles on the interviews and materials it has obtained from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), showing that U.S. officials knew very early that operations in Afghanistan were not going well and that the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations have misled the American public about the state of operations over the last 18 years. It seems fair to say, these materials might rival the Pentagon Papers. Much of the material is shocking, especially when one compares the public statements and the private statements of some of the key figures who have been identified thus far.

However, if one had been following the quarterly SIGAR reports, to say nothing of the Lessons Learned series, one was able to see that efforts in Afghanistan were going poorly. In helping clients in my past life, I stayed on top of defense issues, and so I did write ups of a number of the SIGAR reports. Below are the excerpts I could find and reading them leads the reasonable reader to the conclusion that operations in Afghanistan were going poorly across a number of dimensions. Consequently, the Post’s articles lose a bit of their shock value when one turns back to SIGAR’s reports, which have been in the public sphere.

January 2017

This week SIGAR released its assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan and the biggest threats to success for the U.S. and its allies. SIGAR presented “High-Risk List report to the incoming Administration and the new Congress…[that] identifies what we see as the greatest threats to the ultimate success of our more than 15-year-long U.S.-funded reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.” SIGAR noted that since 2002, over $115 billion in U.S. funds have been expended in Afghanistan, “the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our nation’s history.” SIGAR stated that “[w]hile all eight risk areas outlined in this report threaten reconstruction, the questionable capabilities of the Afghan security forces and pervasive corruption are the most critical.” SIGAR stated that “[w]ithout capable security forces, Afghanistan will never be able to stand on its own…[and] [w]ithout addressing entrenched corruption, the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government will remain in a perilous state.” SIGAR stated that “[i]f these two risk areas are not addressed, I fear that our reconstruction efforts could ultimately fail, to the detriment of our national-security goals in Afghanistan.”

SIGAR identified the following high-risk areas:

  • AFGHAN SECURITY FORCES CAPACITY AND CAPABILITIES: Afghanistan needs a stable security environment to prevent it from again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other terrorists. More than half of all U.S. reconstruction dollars since 2002 have gone toward building, equipping, training, and sustaining the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). However, the ANDSF has not yet been capable of securing all of Afghanistan and has lost territory to the insurgency. As of August 28, 2016,USFOR-A reported that only 63.4% of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or influence a reduction from the 72% as of November 27, 2015. Capability gaps in key areas such as intelligence, aviation, and logistics are improving, but still hinder effectiveness.
  • CORRUPTION: Corruption continues to be one of the most serious threats to the U.S.-funded Afghanistan reconstruction effort. Corruption has eroded state legitimacy, weakening the government’s ability to enlist popular support against the insurgency, discouraging foreign investment and economic growth, as well as seriously diminishing Afghan military capability.
  • SUSTAINABILITY: Much of the more than $115 billion the United States has committed to reconstruction projects and programs risks being wasted because the Afghans cannot sustain the investment—financially or functionally—without massive, continued donor support. Donors were expected to finance approximately 69% of Afghanistan’s $6.5 billion fiscal year (FY) 1395 national budget (December 22, 2015–December 21, 2016), mostly through grants. At 2016 conferences in Warsaw and Brussels, the United States and other donors pledged to maintain assistance to Afghanistan at or near current levels through 2020.
  • ON-BUDGET SUPPORT: On-budget assistance includes direct assistance (also referred to as bilateral, government-to-government assistance) and assistance that travels through multi-donor trust funds before reaching the Afghan government. On-budget assistance is intended to reduce costs, increase Afghan government ownership, and build the Afghan institutional capacity for managing their own budget. However, on-budget assistance, whether delivered directly or through multilateral trust funds, leads to reduced U.S. control and visibility over these funds. Given the evidence that the Afghan government still cannot manage and protect these funds and may not use them appropriately, the Department of Defense is planning to reduce some of its on-budget assistance.
  • COUNTERNARCOTICS: The cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs puts the entire U.S. investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. Although the United States has committed more than $8 and a half billion to counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, the country still leads the world in opium production, and Afghan farmers are growing more opium than ever. The Afghan insurgency receives significant funding from participating in and taxing the illicit narcotics trade, raising the question of whether the Afghan government can ever prevail without tackling the narcotics problem.
  • CONTRACT MANAGEMENT: The scope of contracting in support of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan is enormous, but contracting represents a high risk to the success of Afghanistan reconstruction. The usual difficulties of contract management are magnified and aggravated by Afghanistan’s remoteness, active insurgency, widespread corruption, limited ministerial capability, difficulties in collecting and verifying data, and other issues.
  • OVERSIGHT: The ability for trained professionals to conduct site visits is a critical part of effective reconstruction oversight. Unfortunately, accessing reconstruction project sites and programs in Afghanistan has grown increasingly difficult with the U.S. and Coalition military drawdown. Oversight has also been weakened by instances of poor documentation, failure to monitor contract compliance and work quality, and inattention to holding contractors and grantees accountable for unsatisfactory performance.
  • STRATEGY AND PLANNING: A lack of emphasis on planning and developing related strategies means the U.S. military and civilian agencies are at risk of working at cross purposes, spending money on nonessential endeavors, or failing to coordinate efforts in Afghanistan.

July 2017

In a few different media outlets, the Trump Administration signaled that it is no closer to the strategy promised to Congress by July on how to handle U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Unnamed Administration officials in one article suggested that a withdrawal of U.S. troops is being considered, while in an interview President Donald Trump made the case for relieving the commander in Afghanistan of his current duties. Other media accounts suggest Trump is considering a shakeup of his national security team by sending current National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan with Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo being tapped to succeed McMaster in the White House. And, amidst these competing messages, at least one key Member on Capitol Hill is signaling his displeasure at the state of affairs.

The Trump Administration has been grappling with how to proceed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year. McMaster, and other stakeholders, have been pushing for a troop increase to help stabilize the Afghan government, creating space to work with Pakistan, India and other countries in the region to decide upon a plan to end hostilities. Yet, other White House officials, such as White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon have resisted further engagement in Afghanistan and have reportedly been pushing to withdraw troops. Even among those aligned with ramping up the U.S. military presence, there have been tensions. According to accounts, McMaster was forced to revise his Afghanistan strategy after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to support a more ambitious broadly reaching plan. Despite reaching agreement on a more plan to deploy 3,900 more troops to Afghanistan, McMaster and others allegedly failed to persuade the President to sign on. In a National Security Council Principals meeting last month, Trump reportedly pushed back against this plan and questioned why the U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan after 16 years. Moreover, it remains to be seen what role new White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly will play in the shaping of Administration policy in the White House beyond trying to formalize communication between staff and the President.

The Trump Administration is beginning to face unrest in Congress regarding plans for Afghanistan. In public hearings before Congress, Mattis had committed to delivering a strategy for Afghanistan by July, and some Members are expressing displeasure at not having received any plan. This week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) even stated he will draft a strategy and add it to the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In a statement, McCain asserted that “[m]ore than six months after President Trump’s inauguration, there still is no strategy for success in Afghanistan…[and] [e]ight years of a ‘don’t lose’ strategy has cost us lives and treasure in Afghanistan.” He declared that “[w]hen the Senate takes up the National Defense Authorization Act in September, I will offer an amendment based on the advice of some our best military leaders that will provide a strategy for success in achieving America’s national interests in Afghanistan.” Should such an amendment be added to the NDAA, it may be another sign the Congress, particularly the Senate, may be taking a more prominent role in foreign and military affairs as evidenced by the passage of a bill to limit the President’s discretion on lifting sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration on Russia.

Likewise, Trump’s comments to NBC that he may relieve U.S. Forces Afghanistan and the Resolute Support Mission General John Nicholson Jr. were met with statements of disagreement. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) both made statements cautioning the White House against removing Nicholson from command. According to media reports, this was not the first time Trump has discussed such a change. In a July 19 meeting with Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Dunford, Trump emphasized that Nicholson should be relieved because the U.S. is “losing.”

In addition to the gains made by the Taliban and associated factions, this week, SIGAR issued another mixed “quarterly report on the status of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.” SIGAR acknowledged that “[i]nsurgents and terrorists carried out a number of deadly high-profile and insider attacks this quarter.” SIGAR noted that “[a]t the same time, there were some positive developments this quarter…[because] President Ashraf Ghani has already begun implementing policies laid out in his forthcoming four-year reform plan for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).” SIGAR stated that “[i]n addition, ANDSF force strength also increased for the second quarter in a row…[and] [t]he number of districts under the control of the government also appears to have stabilized at 59.7%, the same as last quarter.”

October 2017

This week, SIGAR released its 37th quarterly report regarding the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the first in eight years for which that the Department of Defense (DOD) would not provide classified information used by SIGAR to assess U.S. and Afghan efforts.

SIGAR stated that “Afghanistan is at a crossroads…[and] President Donald Trump’s new strategy has clarified that the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorosan will not cause the United States to leave.” SIGAR stated that “[a]t the same time, the strategy requires the Afghan government to set the conditions that would allow America to stay the course.” SIGAR noted that “[e]fforts are already under way to implement the President’s strategy…[and] [b]efore determining new troop levels for Afghanistan, the Pentagon acknowledged in August that there are more than 11,000 U.S. personnel already on the ground, about 3,000 more than the 8,400 figure previously reported.” SIGAR stated that “[o]n August 31, Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis signed new deployment orders to add over 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, which will bring the total to 14,000–15,000 personnel, not including civilians and contractors.” SIGAR stated that “[t]he force increase is expected to expand the advising mission, increase training for Afghanistan’s special operations forces, and allow for increased provision of U.S. air and artillery strikes in support of Afghan forces.”

SIGAR explained that “[i]n a significant development this quarter, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) classified or otherwise restricted information SIGAR has until now publicly reported…[which] include important measures of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) performance such as casualties, personnel strength, attrition, capability assessments, and operational readiness of equipment.” SIGAR Noted that “USFOR-A said the casualty data belonged to the Afghan government, and the government had requested that it be classified.” SIGAR observed that “[m]ore than 60% of the approximately $121 billion in U.S. funding for reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2002 has gone to build up the ANDSF, so the increased classification of ANDSF data will hinder SIGAR’s ability to publicly report on progress or failure in a key reconstruction sector.”

SIGAR noted that “[e]fforts are already under way to implement the President’s strategy…[and] [b]efore determining new troop levels for Afghanistan, the Pentagon acknowledged in August that there are more than 11,000 U.S. personnel already on the ground, about 3,000 more than the 8,400 figure previously reported.” SIGAR stated that “[o]n August 31, Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis signed new deployment orders to add over 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, which will bring the total to 14,000–15,000 personnel, not including civilians and contractors.” SIGAR stated that “[t]he force increase is expected to expand the advising mission, increase training for Afghanistan’s special operations forces, and allow for increased provision of U.S. air and artillery strikes in support of Afghan forces.”

April 2018

On April 30, the SIGAR released its most recent quarterly report “on the status of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan” for the first quarter of calendar year 2018. While SIGAR reported greater cooperation from the Pentagon regarding statistics that were newly classified last year, the agency also asserted that based on available numbers, it is clear that Afghan forces are getting smaller.

SIGAR stated that it “continued to work with United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) this quarter to maximize the amount of unclassified information that could be provided to Congress and the public on the U.S.-funded mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).” SIGAR said that “[a]s a result of these meetings and other consultations with the Department of Defense (DOD), USFOR-A declassified or allowed the public release of several different types of data related to the reconstruction of the Afghan security forces.” SIGAR stated that “[a]mong them are the assigned, or actual, force strength of the ANDSF, which the latest figures show to be falling sharply over the last year.”

SIGAR explained that “[a]s of March 31, 2018, the United States had appropriated approximately $126.26 billion for relief and reconstruction in Afghanistan since FY 2002…allocated as follows:

  • $78.22 billion for security ($4.57 billion for counternarcotics initiatives)
  • $33.00 billion for governance and development ($4.22 billion for counternarcotics initiatives)
  • $3.42 billion for humanitarian aid
  • $11.62 billion for civilian operations

SIGAR stated that of the $126.26 billion, “DOD had disbursed nearly $65.60 billion for ANDSF initiatives.” However, SIGAR stated that “[t]his quarter, USFOR-A provided complete Afghan National Army (ANA) authorized (goal) strength figures in an unclassified format as well as top-line assigned (actual) strength figures.” SIGAR found that:

However, the assigned, or actual, strength of the ANA has decreased since the same period in 2017. As of January 31, 2018, assigned strength was 165,622 personnel, consisting of 74,184 soldiers, 58,678 noncommissioned officers, and 32,760 officers. This figure reflects 4,818 fewer soldiers, or 2.8% less, than January 2017 (not including civilians). The ANA was therefore at 85.4% of its authorized strength in January 2018, down over five points from 90.6% one year prior, which is partially explained by the recent increase in the ANA’s authorized strength.

On May 1, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was posed a question regarding “[t]he message from [the Pentagon] has consistently been that things, the situation is turning around; that things are improving there.” Mattis responded that “I don’t know that that’s been the message from this building…[and] I would not subscribe to that.” He said that “[w]e said last August NATO is going to hold the line…[and] [w]e knew there would be tough fighting going forward.” Mattis asserted that “[t]he Afghan military is being made more capable…[and] [y]ou’ll notice that more of the forces are special forces, advised and assisted, accompanied by NATO mentors, and these are the most effective forces.” He declared that “[w]e’ll stand by the Afghan people…[and] the Afghan government…[a]nd the NATO mission will continue, as we drive them to a political settlement.”

At a May 3 press briefing by DOD Chief Spokesperson Dana White regarding SIGAR’s finding that Afghan forces are getting smaller, she remarked “we’re working by, with and through our partners…[and] [t]hat, as the Secretary said earlier this week, these are desperate attempts.” White said that “our goal is to force the enemy to a political solution…[a]nd we’re going to do that.” She asserted that “the enemy gets a vote…[w]e will continue to work…[and] [w]e’re there to stand with the Afghan government.”

January 2018

This week, SIGAR released its 38th quarterly report on U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. SIGAR John Sopko noted in his cover letter “the Department of Defense (DOD) 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…[even though] SIGAR has been reporting district-control data since January 2016, and later added estimates of population and land-area control reported by DOD.” SIGAR noted “DOD has determined that although the most recent numbers are unclassified, they are not releasable to the public.”

SIGAR asserted that “the number of districts controlled or influenced by the Afghan government had been one of the last remaining publicly available indicators for members of Congress—many of whose staff do not have access to the classified annexes to SIGAR reports—and for the American public of how the 16-year- long U.S. effort to secure Afghanistan is faring.” SIGAR claimed that “[h]istorically, the number of districts controlled or influenced by the government has been falling since SIGAR began reporting on it, while the number controlled or influenced by the insurgents has been rising—a fact that should cause even more concern about its disappearance from public disclosure and discussion.” SIGAR added that “[t]his worrisome development comes as DOD this quarter, for the first time since 2009, also classified the exact strength figures for most Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), another vital measure of ANDSF reconstruction.”

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