WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A move by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to classify a key assessment of multibillion dollar efforts to train and equip local security forces is "inexplicable" and hides issues from the public, a U.S. government watchdog said.
John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, said in a quarterly report to Congress on Thursday that his office was "deeply troubled" by the decision to classify the executive summary of the report that assesses the capability of ANSF, the Afghan National Security Forces.
"ISAF's classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort," Sopko said in the report. The International Security Assistance Force's combat mission is due to end this year.
Sopko said the need to carefully monitor the development of the ANSF was underscored in August, when Afghan soldier shot dead U.S. Major General Harold Greene, the most senior U.S. military official killed in action overseas since the war in Vietnam. The U.S. has spent $61.5 billion to prepare ANSF, the report said.
"SIGAR and Congress can of course request classified briefings on this information, but it's inexplicable classification now and its disappearance from public view does a disservice to the interest of informed national discussion," he said in the report.
ISAF, which is led by an American general, said in a statement that the decision to classify the entirety of the Regional ANSF Status Report, including its executive summary, was taken in August.
"We have a responsibility to protect data that could jeopardize the operational security of our Afghan partners to include unnecessarily highlighting possible vulnerabilities and capability gaps," ISAF said.
Sopko questioned how releasing aggregated data on the capabilities of Afghan forces would provide tactical benefit to insurgents, who could, he acknowledged, take advantage of detailed, unit-level assessments when planning attacks.
Earlier this year, ISAF also stopped publicly reporting data on Taliban attacks and SIGAR has faulted it for classifying information about the Afghan Special Mission Wing, which the watchdog has previously voiced concerns about.
The U.S. military has consistently voiced confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to hold their own after the combat mission ends this year and the international coalition will greatly scale back its presence.
Still, the insurgents, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, have been launching increasingly fierce attacks, testing the abilities of Afghan forces. Some 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police have died nationwide this year fighting the Taliban.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Alan Crosby)