Watchdog: US military won't release data on Taliban attacks after withdrawal deal

Watchdog: US military won't release data on Taliban attacks after withdrawal deal
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The U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan is no longer publicly releasing data on insurgent attacks, citing ongoing negotiations with the Taliban to implement the Trump administration's withdrawal deal, a U.S. watchdog said Friday.

In its latest quarterly report, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) said Taliban attacks against Afghan forces have been “above seasonal norms” since the Trump administration signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban.

But the exact number of so-called enemy initiated attacks (EIA) is now being restricted from public release by the Resolute Support (RS) mission, SIGAR said.

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“This EIA data was one of the last remaining metrics SIGAR was able to use to report publicly on the security situation in Afghanistan since RS discontinued its previous system of assessing district control in 2018,” Special Inspector General John Sopko wrote in his introduction to the report. “RS explained its decision by saying ‘EIA are now a critical part of deliberative interagency discussions regarding ongoing political negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban.’”

The Pentagon told SIGAR the “data may again become releasable to the public once the deliberative process ends,” Sopko added.

The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban at the end of February that committed the U.S. military to drawing down to 8,600 troops by mid-July. The agreement also lays out a full U.S. withdrawal within 14 months after its signing if the Taliban honors its counterterrorism commitments.

Days after the deal was signed, the Taliban resumed attacks against Afghan forces.

While Resolute Support restricted data on the exact number of enemy initiated attacks, it told SIGAR that from March 1 to March 31, “the Taliban refrained from attacks against coalition forces; however they increased attacks against ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] to levels above seasonal norms.”

While the attacks the Taliban conducted against Afghan forces weren’t explicitly banned by the deal, “U.S. officials had said they expected the level of violence to remain low after the agreement came into effect,” Sopko said.

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In a Pentagon briefing Friday, chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the data on Taliban attacks has not been classified, but is now considered "deliberative" and for official use only because "we're working on toward a better solution and better place for Afghanistan and ... the sharing of that information would not move that ball forward."

Hoffman also reiterated the United States is "not pleased with the level of violence in Afghanistan," adding that officials are working on diplomatic solutions to lessen the attacks.

"Just because you are not seeing an increased military response to it, it doesn't mean we are not pulling other levers in an effort to get that number down," Hoffman said.

The Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban was also meant to usher in talks between the Afghan government and the insurgents. But those talks have yet to start amid disagreements about a prisoner swap that was meant to precede the negotiations.

Further complicating the situation, the report said, is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“As in the rest of the world, the COVID-19 virus pandemic hit Afghanistan hard this quarter,” Sopko wrote. “Although the number of reported Afghan cases is still low, experts are predicting a significant health crisis in the coming months—a crisis likely to be exacerbated by rising food prices.”

The report also highlighted U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s warning that the spread of the coronavirus could complicate prisoner releases and face-to-face talks, adding that “there are further concerns that intra-Afghan negotiations could be significantly hindered if a large number of prisoners on either side contract or die of the virus while in captivity.”

Updated at 1:34 p.m.