A U.S. government watchdog on October 29 accused the State Department and Pentagon of withholding information about the collapse of Afghanistan's government and the true strength of the country’s military forces.
John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said the withheld information would have helped lawmakers and the American people assess whether the United States should have ended its mission sooner, and he called on the two departments to release all the relevant information.
"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 said.
Sopko, who has been a frequent critic of the way the Afghan war was conducted, spoke at the annual conference of the Military Reporters & Editors Association in Arlington, Virginia.
He said the State and Defense departments "should declassify and make available to SIGAR and Congress all internal DOD and State Department cables, reports, and other material reflecting the security situation on the ground over the last few years -- especially those reports that differed from the public statements of the agencies in Washington."
Sopko said the information that the Defense Department (DOD) restricted included reports on the performance of the Afghan security forces.
In public, the Pentagon repeatedly touted the size and strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as superior to the Taliban. In reality, “nearly all the information you needed to determine whether the Afghan security forces were a real fighting force or a house of cards waiting to fall" was restricted, he 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,” Sopko said.
The Afghan military collapsed as the Taliban swept across the country, ultimately seizing power in Kabul on August 15 with barely a shot fired.
Sopko said shortly afterward the State Department asked him to temporarily suspend online access to certain reports on SIGAR's website to ensure the safety of U.S.-affiliated Afghans.
After Sopko complied, the State Department request that SIGAR redact information from its reports, including removing all mentions of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Sopko said that while he is sure the former president “may wish to be excised from the annals of history,” the department "was never able to describe any specific threats to individuals that were supposedly contained in our reports."
A State Department spokesperson told Reuters the department had requested "some reports be temporarily removed to redact identifying information from public records and protect the identities of Afghans and Afghan partner organizations" due to security concerns.
SIGAR was established by Congress in 2008 and since then has released more than 50 quarterly reports for Congress detailing U.S. operations and spending in Afghanistan.
In his introduction to the latest report, released on October 30, Sopko said that U.S.-funded reconstruction has now paused in Afghanistan except for some humanitarian aid to address food shortages aggravated by drought and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The United States is not providing any assistance to the Taliban or any part of the government of Afghanistan,” according to the report.
Sopko notes that the single costliest reconstruction effort -- training and equipping the Afghan security forces, which no longer exist -- had a price tag of $89 billion and other reconstruction objectives, such as to assist women and girls, are under threat from the Taliban regime.
“These are sobering facts, and we owe all who served in Afghanistan -- as well as the American taxpayer -- an accurate accounting of why the 20-year U.S. mission in Afghanistan ended so abruptly, with so little to show for it,” Sopko said.