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Government watchdog blasts State and Defense departments for withholding key information about Afghanistan

<i>David Swanson/Pool/Getty Images</i><br/>U.S. soldiers guard the Baghran Valley where Taliban and possibly al Qaeda have been sighted during
Getty Images
David Swanson/Pool/Getty Images
U.S. soldiers guard the Baghran Valley where Taliban and possibly al Qaeda have been sighted during "Operation Viper" February 19

By Ellie Kaufman and Oren Liebermann, CNN

The US government’s Afghanistan watchdog blasted the State and Defense departments for withholding critical information about their work in Afghanistan that “almost certainly would have benefited Congress and the public in assessing whether progress was being made.”

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said, “The full picture of what happened in August — and all the warning signs that could have predicted that outcome — will only be revealed if the information that the Departments of State and Defense have already restricted from public release is made available.”

Speaking at the Military Reporters & Editors Association Annual Conference in Arlington, Virginia, on Friday, Sopko called on the two departments to release all the relevant information.

Sopko has been a consistent and harsh critic of the way the Afghan war was conducted but his comments on Friday are likely to be scrutinized as lawmakers investigate the mistakes made in the conduct of the nearly 20-year conflict and its chaotic end.

He said the restriction of information by the Defense Department, which he said dated back to 2015, would have helped Congress and the public assess “whether we should have ended our efforts” in Afghanistan.

The Defense Department restricted the public release of information about “the performance of the Afghan security forces,” which included “casualty data, unit strength, training and operation deficiencies, tactical and operational readiness of Afghan military leadership, comprehensive assessments of Afghan security force leadership and operational readiness rates,” Sopko said.

In short, he said, it was “nearly all the information you needed to determine whether the Afghan security forces were a real fighting force or a house of cards waiting to fall.”

The Pentagon had repeatedly touted the size and strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as superior to the vastly outnumbered Taliban. In the end, the Afghan military collapsed in a span of less than two weeks as the Taliban swept across the country this summer, culminating in the fall of Kabul on August 15 with barely a shot fired.

Sopko also ridiculed the State Department’s request to “temporarily suspend access” to all “audit, inspection and financial audit… reports,” on SIGAR’s website shortly after Kabul fell to the Taliban in August. The State Department claimed information in those reports “could put Afghan allies at risk.”

Sopko said State Department requests did not make sense

The requests, Sopko said, did not make any sense, like asking to redact the name of former Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, a figure already well known internationally.

“I’m sure [former] President Ghani may wish to be excised from the annals of history, but I don’t believe he faces any additional threats, nor is there any threat to any other Afghans, by mentioning his name in our reports,” Sopko quipped.

State also asked SIGAR to consider redacting the name of a USAID official, Sopko said, even though he testified publicly before Congress in 2017 and video of the testimony is still available.

State then requested SIGAR redact 2,400 new items the department identified on SIGAR’s website. Sopko reviewed the requested redactions and found all “but four to be without merit,” he said.

“Due to safety and security concerns regarding our ongoing evacuation efforts, we requested some reports be temporarily removed to redact identifying information from public records and protect the identities of Afghans and Afghan partner organizations. SIGAR has the authority to restore the reports when it deems appropriate,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN in a statement. “The identifying information are the only details intended to be shielded. Because of the volume of information, some entities temporarily removed reports or full datasets.”

In late August, CNN requested reports from SIGAR and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that were no longer available on the website. At the time both offices said they had removed the reports “out of an abundance of caution” at the request of the State Department.

Sopko said the request from the State Department along with the Defense Department’s longstanding restriction on key information about the mission in Afghanistan prevent lawmakers, the press and the public from knowing the true state of affairs in the country and what led to its collapse to the Taliban in such a short amount of time.

Sopko argued State and Defense “should declassify and make available to SIGAR and Congress all internal DOD and State Department cables, reports and other material reflecting the security situation on the ground over the last few years — especially those reports that differed from the public statements of the agencies in Washington.”

In order to fully understand what happened in Afghanistan and learn from 20 years of US military involvement in the country, more information is needed, Sopko said, arguing for greater transparency from the US government.

“To answer these questions, we must find out what our government knew, when it knew it, and what it did, if anything, with that information,” he said.

This story has been updated with a statement from the State Department.

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CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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