WASHINGTON --- A decision by U.S. military officials in Afghanistan to stop tracking the amount of territory controlled by the Taliban is sparking an increasingly tense showdown with the watchdog overseeing reconstruction efforts.
The so-called district-level stability assessments, which measure the number of the country's districts under government or insurgent control or influence, have been one of the most widely cited indicators of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
But the assessments are missing from the quarterly report issued Wednesday by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the first time the report has failed to include the data since 2015.
In a letter to SIGAR in March, the U.S.-commanded Resolute Support mission said the information had been dropped because it was "of limited decision-making value."
Ending data collection
A spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, Col. David Butler, further defended the decision to stop collecting the data Wednesday.
"The district stability assessment that was previously provided by (the Department of Defense) was redundant and did little to serve our mission of protecting our citizens and allies," he said, adding, "the intelligence community produces a district stability assessment which is available to SIGAR."
Only SIGAR, which has expressed growing alarm about the amount of information that is no longer being collected or which has been unnecessarily classified, said this is the first time military officials have raised such concerns.
"SIGAR has always gotten the district assessments from the RS (Resolute Support) command, not from the intelligence community," SIGAR spokesman Philip LaVelle told VOA, via email.
"When RS provided their formal response to our data call on this issue, they made no mention of it being discontinued because it's 'redundant' and no indication of it being made available to us from the intelligence community," he added.
Intelligence officials contacted by VOA are looking into whether the information is being collected and might be available to SIGAR.
But the assertion such data is collected would appear to contradict the letter Resolute Support sent SIGAR in March.
"District stability data has not been collected since the October 22, 2018 data submitted last quarter," Resolute Support wrote. "There are no products at command or other forums that communicate district stability or control information."
Loss of data
In a statement accompanying the report's release, SIGAR decried the loss of the data.
"Despite its limitations, the control data was the only unclassified metric provided by (Resolute Support) that consistently tracked changes to the security situation on the ground," it said.
SIGAR also noted that previous commanders of the Resolute Support mission "had previously cited its importance in public statements."
The U.S.-led mission's decision to eliminate the stability assessments comes after successive reports showed the Afghan government's control of the country falling to record lows.
In its November 2018 report, SIGAR said the Afghan government controlled or influenced only 56 percent of the country's districts, at the time the lowest level recorded since the watchdog began tracking district control in November 2015.
In SIGAR's subsequent report, issued this past January, that number had slipped to less than 54 percent, as the Afghan government lost seven districts to the Taliban.
According to some, the figures suggest U.S. President Donald Trump's strategy for Afghanistan, meant to increase pressure on the Taliban and force them to negotiate an end to decades of fighting, is not having the level of success claimed by administration officials.
Other data collected for the latest SIGAR report also show reason for concern.
The average number of attacks initiated by the Taliban jumped 19 percent for the three-month period ending in January. The number of casualties suffered by Afghan forces were 31 percent higher than compared to the same period last year.
The report found Afghan civilian casualties were also up, increasing 5 percent from 2017 to almost 11,000, while the number of civilians deaths jumped 11 percent, to more than 3,800.
"Ultimately, I don't think we've met all of our strategic goals there," U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told reporters last week, ahead of the report's release.
"We were going to get the terrorists out and create a government that could keep the terrorists out," he said. "Obviously, we haven't kicked the terrorists out if they're still blowing things up and we're negotiating with them. That strategic goal has now changed."
Sopko also raised concerns that increasing amounts of information about U.S. difficulties or failures in Afghanistan is being hidden from the public.
"What we are finding now is almost every indicia, metrics, however you want to phrase it, for success or failure is now classified or non-existent," he said.
"The Afghan people obviously know which districts are controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows it," he said. "The only people who don't know what is going on are the people who are paying for all of this, and that's the American taxpayer."