- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A spat between the four-star general who oversees the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan and the special inspector who audits U.S. government activity in the country spilled onto Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The tumultuous relationship between Army Gen. John Campbell and John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction [SIGAR], has attracted attention over the past several weeks as the inspector continues to pressure the military to keep public information on the training, expenditures and other Afghan National Security Forces data.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants to protect that data as classified.

The government watchdog has been attacking Gen. Campbell in reports to Congress for providing to inspectors an inaccurate count of Afghan National Army troops, which has dropped by 15,636 soldiers over the past year.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, Gen. Campbell explained that the troop number variance — which resulted from accounting errors — was partly due to miscommunication during the inspection process and a shortage of military personnel who are providing accounting numbers and other information to U.S. auditors.

Gen. Campbell implied to lawmakers that the miscommunication could have been avoided if the government watchdog had brought its concerns to his attention instead of gunning for headlines.

“When I learned through the New York Times — not through SIGAR — that these numbers were going to be replaced, I contacted John Sopko at SIGAR and said, ‘We need to take a hard look at this data that you’re getting ready to release. I don’t think it’s right,’” he said.

“So I alerted him to that. They stopped the release of that piece and, again, we’re looking hard at how we can continue to work making sure everybody gets the right data,” the general said.

Lawmakers did not appear miffed by Gen. Campbell’s defense.

SIGAR spokesman Alex Bronstein-Moffly declined to comment on the general’s statement.

Mr. Sopko attracted the concerns of lawmakers after airing his grievances with Gen. Campbell in a February report to Congress. The report states that initial figures provided by the U.S. military indicated Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] had shed a whopping 16,336 soldiers during a period of time when U.S. troops were preparing to leave the country.

“The U.S. military’s inconsistent reporting on [Afghan National Security Forces] strength numbers indicates long-standing and ongoing problems with accountability and personnel tracking,” he said in that report.

“Given that accurate reporting on [ANSF] strength is an important factor in judging Afghanistan’s ability to maintain security and in determining the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from the country, and that the United States is paying to train, equip, and sustain the Afghan troops based on these numbers, these inconsistencies are deeply troubling,” he said.

But staff for Gen. Campbell told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the turmoil between military and government watchdog is far less serious than it appears.

The two are simply experiencing “hiccups” as they move toward a future where there are fewer U.S. troops on the ground to shield nascent Afghan forces from adversaries who might use public information on those forces “to pick and choose where they want to attack, when they want to attack and who they want to attack,” a U.S. Forces Afghanistan official said.

Fewer U.S. troops on the ground also means that there are less personnel on hand to dig up data on the security forces and provide that data to Mr. Sopko, a situation that the inspector may have interpreted as a snub to his authority, the official said on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe he thinks we’re not respecting him,” he said. “Maybe he thinks we’re trying to slow roll him. Maybe he thinks we’re trying to hide something.”

Tensions have run high between the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the U.S. military for a long time, but this “the most serious spat” that the two have gotten into to date, said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“The SIGAR has definitely been a thorn in the side of military and USAID officials who are working hard to stabilize the country,” she said. “Every time you turn around there’s a new SIGAR report about something going wrong in Afghanistan. It gives the impression that the U.S. is not doing anything right in the country, which is inaccurate.”

The U.S. military has likely been acting without malice, she said. After all, there have been high casualty and attrition rates within the Afghan National Security Forces, so it is not surprising that there would be some confusion about the size of the force, Ms. Curtis said.

“I think it’s possible that some honest mistakes were made,” she said.

Staff for Gen. Campbell say that the miscalculation in Afghan army end strength is far more innocent than it has been portrayed in the media.

The variance between the two types of data collected, one of which shows that the Army shed 16,336 in about a 12-month time span and the other showing a reduction of 15,636, was due to counting preferences, the official said.

“They were counting cadets and we weren’t counting cadets,” the official said.

Additionally, staff for Gen. Campbell say that the tug-of-war over classified documents that has been ongoing for the past several months has been overblown by the government watchdog.

Mr. Sopko has been adamant that the military’s decision to classify documents that have been publicly available for years under the guise of shielding Afghan forces is unacceptable. In a Jan. 30 quarterly report to Congress, he even went so far as to describe the expanded classification status as “unprecedented.”

“The decision leaves SIGAR for the first time in six years unable to publicly report on most of the U.S.-taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the [Afghan National Security Forces],” he said.

U.S. Forces Afghanistan officials told The Times that they only classified those documents that contained information that was “confidential” or “secret.” That procedure is routine inside the Pentagon, the official said.

Out of the 900-plus pages of documents available to the government watchdog, more than 90 percent of them did not contain confidential information or only contained a few lines of secret information, the official said. The feud between the military and SIGAR over that classification status far less serious than Mr. Sopko makes it seem, the official said.

“[SIGAR] staff have actually told us that they’re very comfortable with how they’re handling this,” the official said.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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