Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko says he's glad the Pentagon "came to their senses" after reports said the U.S. military is not restricting data related to Taliban-controlled districts, although SIGAR has not received formal notification that it can release the information publicly.
In its latest quarterly report released today, SIGAR highlighted how the Defense Department for the first time restricted the release of data detailing the Afghan government's control of local populations and districts versus the Taliban's. SIGAR had been publicly reporting such information since January 2016.
Subsequently, Resolute Support campaign spokesman Navy Capt. Thomas Gresback told reporters "a human error in labeling occurred" and "it was not the intent of Resolute Support to withhold or classify information which was available in prior reports."
However, Sopko said SIGAR has yet to receive formal notification about the policy.
"SIGAR takes the classification and/or designation of information by a classifying authority, such as RS, very seriously; the implication being that it could have national security ramifications," Sopko said in a statement provided to Inside Defense. "We have yet to receive any formal notification that we are clear to release this information publicly."
Sopko said if it's true the data is not being restricted, "that's great."
"I'm glad they finally came to their senses," Sopko continued. "It's unfortunate that they only did so after the press started to ask questions. We hope now they will release all the other important information they have unreasonably withheld from the American people."
Furthermore, SIGAR spokeswoman Jennifer George-Nichol told Inside Defense that before publishing the quarterly report, SIGAR asked DOD and Resolute Support to "clarify" why the control data was marked as "not releasable to the public."
"They never gave us a response explaining the decision," George-Nichol said.
The controversy over public release of the data comes as Afghan security forces struggle to maintain control over a dwindling number of districts, while the Taliban continue to make gains.
When SIGAR first began reporting district and population control information in its January 2016 quarterly report, the Afghan government controlled or had influence over 71.6 percent of the country's 407 districts, while the Taliban controlled or had influence over 6.6 percent. Just over 21 percent were "at risk" at the time.
Two years later, the latest quarterly report would have reported the following if it was not mistakenly restricted, according to Gresback: As of October 2017, 56 percent of the country's districts are under Afghan government control or influence, 14 percent are under Taliban control or influence, and 30 percent are contested.