NATO's US-led mission in Afghanistan is withholding key information about Taliban attacks, a US government watchdog said Friday, potentially making insights into the war harder just as the Pentagon slashes its troop presence.
The Resolute Support (RS) mission previously disclosed data on "enemy-initiated attacks", one of the few remaining public metrics of the conflict and the strength of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
In its quarterly report released Friday, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said RS had stopped providing numbers.
Instead, RS gave only a short statement noting the Taliban had stepped up attacks in March, immediately after the signing of a US-Taliban deal that was supposed to pave the way to peace talks.
"Between March 1 and 31, the Taliban refrained from attacks against coalition forces; however they increased attacks against (Afghan forces) to levels above seasonal norms," RS said, according to the report.
Under the deal, US and other foreign forces will quit Afghanistan next year if the Taliban start peace talks with Kabul and stick to various security commitments.
In the week ahead of the February 29 deal signing in Doha, violence plummeted during a partial truce and US officials hoped attacks would stay low.
Instead, the Taliban immediately resumed assaults on Afghan forces.
During the deal negotiations, the Taliban had agreed to stop hitting foreign troops, but there was no such prohibition on targeting Afghan forces.
- 'Unacceptably high' violence -
RS told SIGAR that it chose to restrict data because enemy attacks were now a "critical part" of discussions "regarding ongoing political negotiations between the US and the Taliban".
SIGAR noted the Pentagon said it might release the information in the future.
A Pentagon spokesman justified the decision to withhold data, citing ongoing talks.
"So the decision was that we're working toward a better solution and a better place for Afghanistan and that the sharing of that information would not... move the ball forward," the spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, told reporters.
"The level of violence by the Taliban is unacceptably high," he said, adding that it was not conducive to a diplomatic solution.
The move to withhold attack numbers follows a trend of diminishing insights into America's longest war, which the US has given up ever winning and is instead trying to end through a political agreement that will provide face-saving cover to leave Afghanistan.
In 2018, RS stopped providing data on how much of the country the Taliban held or contested, amid criticism the war was at a stalemate.
That followed a decision by the Afghan government to classify data on how many of its soldiers and police were getting killed by the Taliban, after shocking figures showed several thousand were dying each year.
Data on enemy attacks "was one of the last remaining metrics SIGAR was able to use to report publicly on the security situation in Afghanistan," the watchdog said.
The Pentagon is on course to cut its troop numbers from about 12,000 to 8,600 in the coming months.
In its report, SIGAR also warned that Afghanistan faces a brutal toll in its worsening coronavirus crisis.
"Afghanistan's numerous and, in some cases, unique vulnerabilities... make it likely the country will confront a health disaster in the coming months," SIGAR said.
Afghanistan officials have so far confirmed 2,171 cases of COVID-19, including 64 deaths.