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Before We Fully Fund The Military, Congress Should Demand Transparency On Afghanistan 

Glasses from a shuttered window at a photography shop are scattered near the site of Saturday's attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. (Rahmat Gul/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Glasses from a shuttered window at a photography shop are scattered near the site of Saturday's attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

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President Donald Trump asked Congress “to end the defense sequester and fully fund our great military,” during his State of the Union address. Before and if that ever happens, the defense department should be open about what it has achieved overseas, why it has failed to make progress, and how it intends to improve.

The defense sequester, passed in 2011, was intended to reign in military spending.  Today, generals say the sequester hampers the readiness of the military. Whether or not Democrats and Republicans can agree on a long-term budget deal to provide steady funding, the public needs to have greater confidence that the military is using its existing funds well, including that it understands the enemy — especially in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters are now active in 70 percent of Afghanistan, according to a new report by the BBC. In interviews with residents of each of the country’s 399 districts in late 2017, the BBC found that “15 million people — half the population — are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks.”

The information [in a BBC study] differs significantly from both the Afghan government’s understanding of the problem and the U.S military’s.

U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001 and fought the insurgency until NAT0 combat troops left in 2014. Since then, Taliban fighters have pushed beyond their southern stronghold into northern, eastern and western parts of the country. In Helmand province, a deadly and volatile area, the Taliban have reclaimed Sangin, Musa Qala and Nad-e Ali, according to the BBC study.

The information differs significantly from both the Afghan government’s understanding of the problem and the U.S military’s. The Afghan government disagreed with the British broadcaster's report, saying that it controlled most areas, while the U.S. military stated last November that the government controls two-thirds of the country.

The three perspectives represent wildly different understandings of the Taliban.

If any lessons are to be learned from Vietnam, it’s that the U.S. military undercounts the enemy at its own peril, the jeopardy of its troops and the people they are trying to help.

During the Vietnam war, former CIA intelligence analyst Sam Adams concluded that the lowest echelon of fighters, the self-defense militia, was not being included in official troop-strength tallies, or order of battle. Undercounting the enemy made it look like the U.S. was winning the war when it wasn’t. Adam’s analysis formed the basis for a controversial documentary produced in 1982 by CBS Reports, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception."

The BBC study offers a new and independent perspective. Congress should insist that the military examine and reconcile this new information with its own intelligence before making further appropriations.

The defense department consumes roughly 16 percent of the U.S. budget, which includes an estimated $2 trillion that has been spent in Afghanistan already.

The president has nearly doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan. When he came into office there were about 8,500, by this spring there will be 15,000.

In addition to that increase in personnel, comes a surge in costs to fight the Taliban and the smaller but growing ISIS, some of whose members flocked to Afghanistan after being routed from Iraq and Syria.

In addition to increasing the number of troops on the ground, Trump also tripled the number of bombs dropped on suspected militants. That hasn't stopped the Taliban and ISIS from waging three separate and particularly vicious attacks in January at the Intercontinental Hotel, in an Afghan government area and at offices of Save the Children. More than 100 people, including Americans, were killed and hundreds wounded.

Taliban fighters are now active in 70 percent of Afghanistan...

The U.S. military’s plan to train and backup more Afghan military and police forces to take control of 80 percent of the country in the next two years sounds ambitious, especially in light of the new BBC study.

It raises questions as to how can we measure their progress when information is being kept secret. The Pentagon has classified basic information about the war, such as the number of Afghans who are being trained for military service, their attrition and the number of Afghans killed in combat. John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, is frustrated that he cannot share this information with American taxpayers. He said the war is at a stalemate.

President Trump has said he is not going to announce what the military will be doing. But if he wants changes in the way it is funded, he has to provide greater transparency of operations and information, including a rigorous recalculation of the enemy.

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Susan E. Reed Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Susan E. Reed is a columnist who has won several awards for her international reporting and her book, "The Diversity Index."

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