WASHINGTON — Amid a battlefield stalemate in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has stopped releasing information often cited to measure progress in America’s longest war, calling it of little value in fighting the Taliban insurgency.
The move fits a trend of less information being released about the war in recent years, often at the insistence of the Afghan government, which had previously stopped the U.S. military from disclosing the number of Afghans killed in battle as well as overall attrition within the Afghan army.
The latest clampdown also aligns with President Donald Trump's complaint that the U.S. gives away too much war information, although there is no evidence that this had any influence on the latest decision.
A government watchdog agency that monitors the U.S. war effort, now in its 18th year, said in a report to Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. military command in Kabul is no longer producing "district control data," which shows the number of Afghan districts -- and the percentage of their population — controlled by the government compared to the Taliban.
The last time the command released this information, in January, it showed that Afghan government control was stagnant or slipping. It said the share of the population under Afghan government control or influence — a figure that was largely unchanged from May 2017 to July 2018 at about 65 percent — had dropped in October 2018 to 63.5 percent. The government's control or influence of districts fell nearly 2 percentage points, to 53.8 percent.
Less than two years ago, a top American commander in Afghanistan called population control "most telling." Gen. John Nicholson told reporters in November 2017 that he wanted to see the figure, then about two-thirds, increase to at least 80 percent, with the Taliban holding only about 10 percent and the rest contested.
"And this, we believe, is the critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance," Nicholson said then.
Nicholson’s successor, Gen. Scott Miller, believes there already are enough such assessments available to the public, including one produced by intelligence agencies.
"We are focused on setting the conditions for a political settlement to safeguard our national interests," Col. David M. Butler, a spokesman for Miller, said in an email exchange Tuesday. "The district stability assessment that was previously provided by DOD was redundant and did little to serve our mission of protecting our citizens and allies."
The war is at a sensitive juncture, with the Trump administration making a hard push to get peace talks started between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban recently launched a spring military offensive and have refused to directly talk to Kabul representatives, viewing the government as a U.S. puppet.
In its report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said Miller's command offered a further explanation for no longer producing the "district control" data, asserting there was "uncertainty" in the way the data were produced and saying "the assessments that underlie them are to a degree subjective."
"The command said they no longer saw decision-making value in these data," the SIGAR report said. In remarks to reporters last week, John Sopko, the special inspector general, criticized what he called a trend toward less openness by the military authorities who are advising, training and assisting Afghan security forces.
"I don't think it makes sense," Sopko said. "The Afghan people 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. The only people who don't know what's going on are the people who are paying for all of this, and that's the American taxpayer."
In January, Trump sharply criticized his own administration for disclosing information that he said aids enemy forces.
"Some IG goes over there, who are mostly appointed by President Obama — but we'll have ours, too — and he goes over there, and they do a report on every single thing that's happening, and they release it to the public," Trump told reporters. "What kind of stuff is this? We're fighting wars, and they're doing reports and releasing it to the public? Now, the public means the enemy. The enemy reads those reports; they study every line of it."
Trump then turned to the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, and said, "I don't want it to happen anymore, Mr. Secretary."
The war in Afghanistan is largely forgotten in much of America, as is the enormous, continuing financial cost. This year the Pentagon budget includes $4.9 billion to provide the Afghan army and police with everything from equipment and supplies to salaries and food. That is one piece of a wider array of "reconstruction" assistance the U.S. government has provided since the war began in 2001, totaling $132 billion.
Overall, the U.S. has spent $737 billion on the war and lost more than 2,400 military lives, according to the Pentagon.