“U.S. suddenly goes quiet on effort to bolster Afghan forces” was the headline in the New York Times that caught my attention. How, pray tell, does a nation go quiet on a $65 billion endeavor? It stops talking. Score another victory for the forces of overclassification in the name of national security.
The Times reports that routine data used in the quarterly reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for the past six years are now classified. Locked behind an appendix to the report that can only be read by those with high-level security clearances. That’s a decidedly small universe.
“While I cannot comment upon the precise reason why certain information was considered unclassified in the past,” Gen. John F. Campbell wrote in a letter that can be seen on page 217 of the latest SIGAR report, “I can advise that given the risks that continue to exist for our forces and those of Afghanistan, I have directed that sensitive operational information or related materials, that could be used by those who threaten the force, or Afghan forces, be classified at an appropriate level.” Campbell noted that he was “committed to maximum transparency,” but then added, “I am compelled to also protect the lives of those individuals who could be put at risk by the release of sensitive information.”
The finely sifted data detail everything from how much money was spent to what it was spent on to the undulating numbers of Afghan military and police. These numbers have been updated every quarter for six years. That’s why the stated reason for the information lockdown is suspect. No one wants information to get out that could put coalition forces at a (bigger) disadvantage against the Taliban. But I’m hard pressed to see how this information blackout is going to help matters.
Sure, the U.S. taxpayer ought to know where his or her money is going and how it is being spent. We should also know if that funding is producing results that will allow that graveyard of empires to defend itself from homegrown instability. But we also ought to know if the Pentagon is flooding the zone with more money and more U.S. personnel than the American people were told. Such an escalation could now be hidden from public view.
In November, President Obama shifted his Afghanistan policy to allow for an extended U.S. role in the country after announcing earlier in 2014 that troops would have no combat role in 2015. The Times reported then that there was vigorous debate within the White House about what to do. “[T]he military pretty much got what it wanted,” an Obama administration official told the Times. After 13 years, U.S.-led NATO combat operations there formally ended last month. Still, 10,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground.
Steve Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, drove home the point I’m trying to make in a 2013 Sunday Review piece on Washington secrecy written by David Sanger. “The reality is that much is classified just to take the issue off the public agenda,” Aftergood told the Times reporter. “That’s not what classification is for, but it often serves that purpose.”
By classifying once-available information about U.S. efforts in Afghan reconstruction, Campbell has taken the issue of our presence there off the public agenda. As we painfully know, bad things can happen when you are kept in the dark.
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