The U.S. military for the second time in eight years is withholding information about casualty and attrition rates in the Afghan army and police force at the request of the Kabul government, a watchdog agency says.
The decision to withhold the casualty figures comes as a report by the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that casualties have been increasing as the Taliban gained ground in the last six months.
The U.S. military previously provided figures on the Afghan military's manpower and the state of equipment to SIGAR to be included in its quarterly reports.
But SIGAR said that for the latest report, the Pentagon told its inspectors that the data belonged to the Afghan government and it must therefore "withhold, restrict, or classify the data as long as the Afghan government has classified it."
SIGAR head John Sopko criticized the decision, saying it will "hinder SIGAR's ability to publicly report on progress or failure in a key reconstruction sector," where more than 60 percent of the roughly $121 billion in U.S. spending in Afghanistan since 2002 has gone -- training and equipping of Afghan security forces.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. forces in Afghanistan or the Kabul government.
This is the second time such data has been withheld as classified since the watchdog agency began reporting in 2008. SIGAR said the first time was for the January 2015 quarterly report, which came after the withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO combat forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
The latest decision to classify the information comes at a time of what SIGAR said are increasing casualties among Afghanistan's armed forces and civilians.
SIGAR's quarterly report in July found what if called "shockingly high" casualties, with 2,531 members of the Afghan security forces killed and 4,238 wounded between January and May 8.
Casualties also soared by 35 percent in 2016, with 6,800 Afghan soldiers and police killed, according to SIGAR.
While the number of military casualties was not updated in SIGAR's October 31 report, it found a 52 percent increase in civilian casualties from coalition and Afghan air strikes in the first nine months of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016.
U.S. forces have increased air strikes recently as part of a new strategy aimed at reversing Taliban gains and forcing the insurgents to seek peace talks with the Afghan government.
Under the strategy, the United States has committed 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 11,000 already there, to train and assist Afghan security forces in their battle against the Taliban.
As of August, SIGAR said 13 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts were under Taliban control or influence, up from 11 percent in February. That means an additional 700,000 Afghans came to live in districts where the Taliban has at least some influence.
In total, about 43 percent of Afghanistan's districts are either under Taliban control or being contested by the Taliban, 3 percent more than six months ago, SIGAR said.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, and Reuters