Information on Afghan debacle must be declassified

Even as the Biden administration tries to close the book on U.S. misadventures in Afghanistan, it still has yet to open the books on embarrassing information that could expose how badly the 20-year stabilization effort was mismanaged.

Classified information was made available to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction as he prepared his most recent report on waste, fraud and abuse in the war and rebuilding effort.

But the American public and some members of Congress still aren’t allowed to see it. President Joe Biden must honor pledges for full transparency and declassify this information immediately.

Although Biden presided over a disastrous, rushed withdrawal in August, the vast bulk of the war occurred under his three predecessors. Each committed blunders that deserve a full public airing to avoid repeating their mistakes in the future.

Special Inspector General John Sopko has monitored these failings since 2012, and anyone who has bothered to read his office’s 53 quarterly reports would probably agree with his assessment that the collapse of the Afghan security forces and rapid Taliban takeover was predictable.

“We really need to get information declassified. There is a lot of information that was classified or withheld from the American people over the years, particularly since 2015, to protect the Afghan government from embarrassment,” Sopko told National Public Radio on Friday.

Since the Taliban is now in power, there’s no one left in Afghanistan’s government to be embarrassed if this information were released. It’s not clear why the information was classified to begin with, since public embarrassment isn’t one of the standards by which the U.S. government labels national security information secret.

“A recent series of requests by the State Department to remove from public view wholesale parts of [the special inspector general’s] reports is a cautionary tale of why oversight agencies need to question an all-too-common impulse to remove information from Congressional and public view with little to no basis in fact or law,” Sopko’s latest report states.

Aside from the massive expenditures to support the U.S. military’s presence since 2001, U.S. taxpayers funded $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, train its security forces and strengthen its civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society, Sopko says in the 53rd quarterly report to Congress, released last week.

The Taliban takeover wiped out virtually everything the United States spent two decades trying to build.

“These are sobering facts, and we owe all who served in Afghanistan — as well as the American taxpayer — an accurate accounting of why the 20-year U.S. mission in Afghanistan ended so abruptly, with so little to show for it,” the report states.

For the federal government, Congress and taxpayers to learn from this experience, they need to have access to information arbitrarily kept from public view by an overly protective State Department.