Afghanistan: government watchdog blasts state and defense departments for withholding key information

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The Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, John Sopko, said: “The full picture of what happened in August – and any warning signs that could have predicted this outcome – will not be revealed. only if information that the State and Defense Departments have already banned from public release is made available. “

Speaking at the Military Reporters & Editors Association’s annual conference in Arlington, Virginia on Friday, Sopko called on both departments to release all relevant information.

Sopko has been a constant and harsh critic of how the Afghan war was fought, but his comments on Friday will likely be scrutinized as lawmakers investigate mistakes made in the conduct of this nearly 20-year conflict and its chaotic end.

He said the Defense Ministry’s restriction on information, which he said dated back to 2015, would have helped Congress and the public assess “whether we should have ended our efforts” in Afghanistan.

The Defense Ministry restricted public disclosure of information on “the performance of the Afghan security forces,” which included “data on casualties, unit numbers, training and operations gaps. , the tactical and operational readiness of the Afghan military leadership, comprehensive assessments of the leadership of the Afghan security forces. and operational readiness rates, ”Sopko said.

In short, he said, it was “almost all the information you needed to determine whether the Afghan security forces were a real fighting force or a house of cards ready to fall.”

The Pentagon has repeatedly touted the size and strength of the Afghan national defense and security forces as superior to the vastly outnumbered Taliban. Ultimately, the Afghan army collapsed in less than two weeks as the Taliban swept the country this summer, culminating in the fall of Kabul on August 15 with barely a shot.

Sopko also ridiculed the State Department’s request to “temporarily suspend access” to all “audit, inspection and financial audit reports …” on the SIGAR website shortly after the fall of Kabul in the hands of the Taliban in August. The State Department said the information in these reports “could endanger Afghan allies.”

Sopko said the State Department’s requests made no sense

The requests, Sopko said, made no sense, such as asking to redact the name of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a figure already well known internationally.

“I am on [former] President Ghani may wish to be removed from the annals of history, but I don’t think he faces any additional threats, or other Afghans, mentioning his name in our reports, ”Sopko joked. .

The state also asked SIGAR to consider removing the name of a USAID official, Sopko said, even though he testified publicly before Congress in 2017 and the video of the testimony is still available.

The state then asked SIGAR to draft 2,400 new material identified by the ministry on the SIGAR website. Sopko reviewed the requested redactions and found that all “except four were without merit,” he said.

“Due to safety and security concerns regarding our ongoing evacuation efforts, we have requested that certain reports be temporarily suppressed to remove identifying information from public records and protect the identity of Afghans and Afghan partner organizations. . SIGAR has the power to restore reports when it deems it appropriate, “a State Department spokesperson told CNN in a statement.” Identifying information is the only details meant to be protected. Due to the volume of information, some entities have temporarily deleted reports or complete data sets. ”

In late August, CNN asked SIGAR and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for reports that were no longer available on the website. At the time, the two offices said they had suppressed the reports “out of caution” at the request of the State Department.

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Sopko said the State Department’s request as well as the Defense Ministry’s long-standing restriction on key information about the mission in Afghanistan prevents lawmakers, the press and the public from knowing the real situation in the country and which led to its collapse at the hands of the Taliban. in so little time.

Sopko argued that the State and Defense “should declassify and make available to SIGAR and Congress all cables, reports and other internal documents from the DOD and the State Department reflecting the security situation on the ground during recent years – especially reports that differed from public statements. agencies in Washington. “

In order to fully understand what happened in Afghanistan and to learn from 20 years of US military engagement in the country, more information is needed, said Sopko, advocating for greater transparency on the part of the government. US government.

“To answer these questions, we need to find out what our government knew, when it knew it, and what it did, if anything, with that information,” he said.

This story has been updated with a statement from the State Department.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.


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