Oct 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Watchdog: State Dept. and Pentagon withholding critical information about Afghanistan

Photo of a soldier in an Afghan uniform in the foreground and another Afghan soldier aiming his rifle at an outpost

Afghan security forces holding the line against Taliban fighters on May 4. Photo Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The U.S. government's Afghanistan watchdog on Friday slammed the State Department and Pentagon for withholding what he said was crucial information about U.S. operations during the 20-year war.

Why it matters: The details "almost certainly would have benefited Congress and the public in assessing whether progress was being made," special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction John Sopko said at an annual conference for military reporters and editors in Arlington, Virginia.

What he's saying: Sopko, whose office was created by Congress to ensure independent oversight, did not hold back, and lawmakers will likely be listening.

  • He accused the Defense Department of restricting public access to information on Afghan security forces and their operational readiness going back to 2015.
    • "In essence, nearly all the information you needed to know to determine whether the Afghan security forces were a real fighting force or a house of cards waiting to fall," Sopko said.
    • "In light of recent events, it is not surprising that the Afghan government, and likely some in DOD, wanted to keep that information under lock and key."
  • He also said the State Department asked him and other oversight agencies to temporarily suspend access" to all "audit, inspection, and financial audit …reports" on their websites, claiming the information could put Afghan allies at risk.
    • "The protection of Afghans at legitimate risk of harm is not an issue to quibble over," Sopko noted.
    • "But despite repeated requests, State was never able to describe any specific threats to individuals ... nor did State ever explain how removing our reports now could possibly protect anyone since many were years old and already extensively disseminated worldwide."
  • "The full picture of what happened in August — and all the warning signs that could have predicted that outcome — will only be revealed if the information that the Departments of State and Defense have already restricted from public release is made available," Sopko added.

What to watch: Lawmakers will likely jump on Sopko's comments as they investigate years of mistakes that might have contributed to the final chaotic withdrawal.

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