The U.S. Is Losing Badly in Afghanistan, but the Trump Administration Is Telling Americans Less

A member of the Afghan security forces takes position at the site of a blast and gun fire in Jalalabad, Afghanistan January 24, 2018. The U.S.-backed Afghan government has steadily lost control to insurgents of the Taliban and ISIS in recent years. PARWIZ/REUTERS

The U.S. and allied local security forces have failed to secure most of Afghanistan, according to a recent investigation that came shortly after the Pentagon refused to release unclassified data on the conflict for the first time ever.

Despite waging nearly 17 consecutive years of war and spending up to $1 trillion, the U.S.-led attempt to defeat the Taliban has left the insurgents openly active in up to 70 percent of Afghanistan, according to a BBC study published Tuesday. The report also found that a rival ultraconservative Sunni Muslim organization, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), controlled more territory than ever, further complicating the beleaguered effort to stabilize the country.

Related: Where will ISIS be in 2018? Iran says Afghanistan and Pakistan are next as Islamic State loses in Iraq and Syria

What a federal watchdog chief found particularly "troubling" and a "worrying development," however, was that none of this information could be included in its mandatory quarterly report on the war. John Sopko, head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said he was instructed by the Department of Defense (DOD) "not to release to the public data on the number of districts, and the population living in them, controlled or influenced by the Afghan government or by the insurgents, or contested by both."

A letter preceding SIGAR's report added, "SIGAR was informed this quarter that DOD has determined that although the most recent numbers are unclassified, they are not releasable to the public."

A member of the Afghan security forces takes position at the site of a blast and gun fire in Jalalabad, Afghanistan January 24, 2018. The U.S.-backed Afghan government has steadily lost control to insurgents of the Taliban and ISIS in recent years. Parwiz/Reuters

SIGAR said it is the first time the watchdog was blocked from releasing this information, on which it has reported since January 2016, and it was the first time ever "that SIGAR has been specifically instructed not to release information marked 'unclassified' to the American taxpayer" since it was created by Congress in 2008 to monitor the already extensive U.S. role in the conflict. SIGAR was deeply critical of the Pentagon and said the public should be especially concerned because trends had historically painted the picture of an increasingly unsuccessful and costly war effort.

The next day, the Pentagon released the statistics, and Navy Captain Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for coalition troops in Afghanistan, told Newsweek in an email, "A human error in labeling occurred" and "It was NOT the withhold or classify information which was available in prior reports."

Gresback denied that the figures were censored and said the U.S.-led coalition was in control of 56 percent of the country, the lowest number reported to date. The BBC study Tuesday placed that number even lower, at 30 percent, less than a third of Afghanistan. Gresback said insurgents controlled a record-breaking 14 percent, while the BBC study estimated 4 percent, claiming the vast majority of the country was still disputed.

Both evaluations were released after a week of heightened violence in Afghanistan that saw both the Taliban and ISIS claim attacks that killed a collective of at least 138 people, mostly civilians.

A map locates recent attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan, amid a particularly violent week, on January 28, 2017. Reuters

In its latest report, SIGAR also noted that this was the second time in a row the Trump administration had restricted the watchdog from publishing numbers previously made public. In its last quarterly report in October, SIGAR reported historic losses for the U.S.-backed Afghan government, but were unable to include the number of casualties among Afghan troops.

"If they start classifying this stuff now, what are they going to do next month?" Sopko told The New York Times at the time. "It's a slippery slope."

Since former President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Al-Qaeda-friendly Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, three successive U.S. administrations have struggled to deal with the ongoing instability and violence there. Osama bin Laden, the former Al-Qaeda head, fled to neighboring Pakistan at some point during the conflict, however, and was ultimately killed in a 2011 Navy SEAL raid on his compound in Abbottabad.

That same year, President Barack Obama began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, a decade after the Taliban government was overthrown. Most foreign troops had left the country by 2014, with remaining forces acting in a counterterrorism advisory role.

An Afghan National Army soldier fires an artillery shell during an ongoing anti-Taliban operation at Farah province, on January 28. As the situation in Afghanistan worsens, the Trump administration appears to be less forthcoming with information. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP/Getty Images

Trump has been critical of his predecessor's strategy and has sought to win the war by increasing troops, intensifying airstrikes and revealing less information to the U.S. public. Months after the Pentagon declined to release the casualty count of last April's massive "Mother of All Bombs" explosion targeting ISIS in Afghanistan, Trump declared during the revelation of his Afghanistan War strategy in August that his administration would be less forthcoming than those that they came before him.

"We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities," Trump said. "Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America's enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will."

He echoed this line in his State of the Union speech Tuesday. Amid unparalleled losses since the 2014 withdrawal, Trump said that "along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans."