‘Lost in Translation’: Pentagon Publishes Inaccurate Data on Afghanistan War Effort

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

The Pentagon published inaccurate data used to underscore the success of counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and other jihadist groups in Afghanistan, prompting concern about the level of progress against terrorism there, revealed Stars and Stripes. 

Specifically, the U.S. underreported the actual number of airstrikes and ground operations and downplayed the capabilities of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The most-elite ANDSF troops, which include police and army units, are only able to carry out operations independent of American assistance about 17 percent of the time despite years of U.S. training and about $75 billion in American-taxpayer funds devoted to its development, erroneously reported the Pentagon in the initial report.

Stars and Stripes goes on to note, “The later version upped that share to 53 percent, suggesting a more capable force.”

In other words, the Pentagon’s inaccuracies “understated the presumed success story of those special units, which the report said made up ‘a small fraction’ of the country’s security forces but conducted the bulk of the offensive operations last year.”

Although the new data makes U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy appear to yield better results, it is unclear why the Department of Defense (DOD) quietly corrected the figures in its report issued January.

When compared to the original assessment, the corrected report shows that the U.S. and their Afghan partners carried out 275 more ground operations (revised 2,450) than the 2,175 initially reported and 135 additional airstrikes (revised 558) than the 423 included in the first report.

Nevertheless, Stars and Stripes reports that the corrected document “also appeared to include errors, such as missing or conflicting data,” prompting the newspaper to cast doubt on all the figures and urging readers to take the information with a grain of salt.

“The difference in the numbers is the fact that there are other enemies in Afghanistan besides [ISIS, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network],” Col. Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, told the newspaper, referring to the 135 missing U.S. strikes.

“Within the operational reporting, there are some missions that do not designate the [targeted] organization,” he added, alluding to the ground activities being off by nearly 280 from the total.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan region is home to the highest concentration of U.S.-designated terrorist groups, an estimated 20, which includes various variations and affiliates of the Taliban, Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network, and various other groups.

Along with the revised information, data on the primary targets of U.S. and Afghan military operations—listed as lSIS, Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and others—are found in the Pentagon’s latest semi-annual assessment of the nearly 17-year-old conflict presented to Congress annually.

The discrepancies raise “questions about the real progress of the secretive counterterrorism campaign being conducted by the U.S. and Afghan military,” notes Star and Stripes, adding:

Some 1,200 operations seemed to have been omitted, though, casting doubt on that ratio’s accuracy. … The corrected report nearly tripled the number of independent Afghan operations. Despite that better ratio, the numbers mean that U.S. special operations troops were still assisting their most capable local partners on the battlefield nearly half the time.

Currently, an estimated 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan largely away from the fight—primarily engaged in a train, advise and assist (TAA) role.

A task force of an estimated 2,000 American service members is charged with training the elite Afghan forces and joining tactical-level units on “certain operations,” notes the revised Pentagon assessment.

“There are no precise numbers in Afghanistan,” Jonathan Schroden, a researcher at the VA-based CNA and director of the nonprofit research organization’s special operations program. “It’s the nature of what you’re dealing with over there.”

Schroden attributed the report’s erroneous data on the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) relying on “notoriously inaccurate, delayed, miscategorized, mislabeled” Afghan military reports. “Trying to make sense of all that is a very challenging prospect.”

Since the previous administration declared the U.S. combat mission over at the end of 2014, the Afghan military, which still suffers from capability gaps, has been mainly in charge of assessing security conditions and the capabilities of their forces, prompting the U.S. watchdog and U.S. officials to describe the results as unreliable.

U.S. Lt. Col. Kone Faulkner, a spokesman for the American-NATO mission in Afghanistan, conceded to Stars and Stripes that something was “lost in translation” when the military used a two-paragraph snapshot of the battle against jihadists to present the raw data.

“However, weeks after Stars and Stripes raised questions about the supposed fixes, officials in Washington have been slow to make further changes,” notes the newspaper.

Moreover, the precise cause of the discrepancy reportedly remains unclear.

Stars and Stripes reports:

[A]t least some could be the result of editing mistakes—but the episode highlights increasing difficulties in obtaining data about U.S. and Afghan operations, even from records meant to hold the military accountable to the 16-year war’s congressional overseers.

Key figures in the by-the-numbers look at U.S. and Afghan counterterrorism missions in the second half of 2017 … were wrong, defense officials confirmed after Stars and Stripes pointed out discrepancies.

The latest Pentagon bi-annual assessment unveiled in last December included the inaccurate data, “including a breakdown of independent and joint raids and a body count of enemy fighters.”

Stars and Stripes acknowledges that the dissemination of inaccurate numbers comes soon after the U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a watchdog agency, revealed in its latest report to Congress that the U.S.-NATO mission denied that it intentionally prevented the auditor from reporting the increase in the rate of districts controlled or contested by jihadists in Afghanistan.

In comments to the Washington Examiner, a spokesman for the U.S.-NATO mission denied that it intentionally prevented an American watchdog agency from reporting the information to the public.

John Sopko, the chief of SIGAR, cast doubt on the U.S. military’s claim that keeping the data from the public was a result of “human error” in a statement to Breitbart News.

The Pentagon’s inaccurate data in question refers to a detailed summary of counterterrorism operations against jihadists in Afghanistan that the military included in its latest assessment of the nearly 17-year-old war.

Despite the increased bombings and ground operations under Trump, the Afghan Taliban, the most prominent terrorist group in the country, has managed to conquer more territory.


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