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The Real Reason the US Military Was So Secretive About Afghanistan

The new secrecy shrouding Defense Department expenditures was motivated not by too much money being spent, but by too few soldiers remaining in the Afghan army.
Photo by Steve Ruark/AP

Last week, the New York Times broke a three-month old story on the classification by the American military of previously unclassified Afghan National Security Forces data. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) requested the information as part of an audit of Department of Defense expenditures on Afghan forces. SIGAR, which releases quarterly reports, was asking questions like how much money had been spent on literacy training for the Afghan army, or how many aircraft were currently in the Afghan air force.


In SIGAR's latest report, that information was moved to a classified index available only to officials with certain security clearances. Why? General John F. Campbell, commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, wrote in a latter responding to the report: "I cannot comment upon the precise reason why certain information was considered unclassified in the past. However, I am compelled to also protect the lives of those individuals who could be put at risk by the release of sensitive information."

Campbell doesn't want anyone to know how badly things are going in Afghanistan. So he's classified any information related to the capacity of Afghan forces, including how much money is being spent to build the Afghan army. Given the amount of taxpayer dollars that have been funneled into Afghan reconstruction over the years, decreased transparency on how it's being spent is worrisome.

But Campbell's main motivation isn't hiding money. It's hiding people.

The National Unity Government is moving Afghanistan forward at a pace that makes the buffet line at the Boca Raton Ponderosa look like a lap at Talladega.

Based on the numbers publicly reported last fall, by the end of this year there won't be an Afghan National Army (ANA) left to fight the insurgency. In their reporting on the ANA, the Americans define attrition as "killed in action, death, dropped from rolls, retirements, and separations." Dropped from rolls in this case means "Oh that guy? He quit showing up." The ANA has tended to lose almost 1/3 of its personnel every year to attrition. This isn't a new problem, and it's one that the US has admitted to publicly in the past. But it's getting worse.


According to the Department of Defense, ANA attrition from October 2013 to October 2014 was nearly 27 percent. The DOD considers 16.8 percent to be acceptable. According to the DOD, "Although the overall attrition rate is higher than optimal, it is not directly affecting operations in the short-term, as the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] remains sustainable numerically due to robust recruitment."

It's true that losing a small percentage of personnel each month won't affect troop numbers in the "short-term." Some attrition is expected — especially during wartime — and recruiting can keep pace with losses. But that's not happening anymore.

This chart shows the monthly end strength goal (blue) for the ANA. It's the number of soldiers NATO and the US determined would ensure that the army could keep doing army things. In green is the actual ANA end strength. The ANA is doing pretty well — up until January of 2014.

That's when the Afghans took the lead for all security operations in Afghanistan. The ANA started missing end strength goals at an exponential rate, with a high of 16 percent in August. Granted, NATO and the US increased the end strength goal that month, but the ANA still missed the previous month's goal by 11 percent.

Campbell doesn't care if people know how much America spent on literacy training, or how many planes are in the Afghan air force. What he cares about is people knowing that the army that's supposedly taking over for the US is disappearing. It's impossible for the ANA to miss troop strength goals this badly and survive.


The US tends to see the world in shades of red, white, and taxpayer green, and so outrage has centered around money. Americans are understandably worried that they won't know what they're getting for all the blood and treasure that has been and continues to be invested in Afghanistan.

These numbers are also why Campbell has been reticent to commit to timelines for withdrawal — it's not just because the Pentagon and the White House don't get along. He knows that soon there won't be an army left to defend Afghanistan, and the grand plans put together by the military to make the political plan work are a frightening failure. (Meanwhile, John Kerry's Frankenstein National Unity Government (NUG) is moving Afghanistan forward at a pace that makes the buffet line at the Boca Raton Ponderosa look like a lap at Talladega.)

'Afghanistan: What We're Leaving Behind.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

American taxpayers are going to foot the bills for US hubris in Afghanistan for a long time to come. But the real losers here are the Afghan people, particularly the Afghan army. Because of our unrealistic timelines — trying to take the Afghan military from zero to hero in a little over five years — Afghanistan now has an army of people silly enough to believe that the US would make all of this right.

And that army is growing smaller by the day.

UPDATE — February 2, 2:30pm ET: The US military has announced it is declassifying the information after SIGAR's objections.

Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani