US Watchdog Says State Dept., DoD Pressured it to Redact Afghan Reports, 'Impeded' Honest Reporting
In August, amid the chaos unleashed in Afghanistan as US troops withdrew from the country and Taliban swiftly gained ground, a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) agency report questioned whether gains from America’s intervention in Afghanistan were “commensurate with US investment or sustainable after a drawdown”.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko has claimed
he had been recently pressured by the State Department to redact some of their reports, including removing any mention of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Sopko said that shortly after the fall of Kabul to Taliban, SIGAR and other oversight agencies were requested to “temporarily suspend access" to all "audit, inspection, and financial audit …reports" on their websites, said Sopko at the Military Reporters & Editors Association annual conference, in Arlington, Virginia, on Friday.
The department had argued that the information could put Afghan allies at risk amid the volatile developments as Taliban militants were gaining ground.
“But despite repeated requests, State was never able to describe any specific threats to individuals that were supposedly contained in our reports, nor did State ever explain how removing our reports now could possibly protect anyone since many were years old and already extensively disseminated worldwide. Nevertheless, with great reservation, I acceded to State’s initial request because it was made at the height of the emergency evacuation from Afghanistan,” said Sopko in comments, published on SIGAR’s website.
After he initially complied, Sopko says the State Department followed up with another request, presenting a spreadsheet of around 2,400 items it sought to have redacted . After a review, SIGAR “found all but four to be without merit”.
The events described by Sopko were unfolding amid the hectic efforts to carry out a massive evacuation
from Kabul airport before a US self-imposed deadline to leave the country before 31 August.
“Given how hard the Department reportedly was working to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan and resettle Afghan refugees, I was surprised they found the time to go through every one of our reports and compile such an exhaustive list,” said SIGAR, adding:
“Upon reviewing their request, it quickly became clear to us that State had little, if any, criteria for determining whether the information actually endangered anyone."
Among the cited requests was one to remove the name of a USAID official who had publicly testified before Congress in 2017 and to scrap Ashraf Ghani’s name from reports.
“While I’m sure the former President may wish to be excised from the annals of history, I don’t believe he faces any threats simply from being referenced by SIGAR,” suggested Sopko.
Furthermore, the head of the agency created by Congress in 2008 to provide independent and objective oversight of the Afghanistan Reconstruction funds and charged with reviewing US involvement in the South Asian country censured the US State Department and the Pentagon for withholding what he underscored was crucial information about American operations throughout the 20-year war.
He emphasised that efforts to classify and restrict crucial details on the performance of the Afghan security forces, ostensibly at the request of the Afghan government, went back to 2015. The omitted information "almost certainly would have benefited Congress and the public in assessing whether progress was being made", said Sopko.
Reflecting on the recent developments in Afghanistan
, where Taliban Islamist militants swiftly seized power in the wake of the withdrawal of US forces from the country, Sopko said:
"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. 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 added that this information almost certainly would have helped Congress and the public assess
whether the US should have ended its efforts in the war-torn country earlier. “Yet SIGAR was forced to relegate this information into classified appendices,” he said.
Amid the backlash that the Joe Biden administration has faced over its handling of its withdrawal from Afghanistan
, Sopko claimed that the full picture of what happened in August and “all the warning signs that could have predicted that outcome” will be revealed if the State Department and the Pentagon finally make available all the information they have restricted from public release.
“DOD should immediately make available to SIGAR and the public the information restricted at the request of the Ghani government, for the simple reason that there no longer is a Ghani government and the Afghan security forces have already completely collapsed,” he said.
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