Congress’ special inspector general for Afghanistan issued a report just before the Taliban’s takeover of the capital of Kabul that predicted a “bleak” future for the country in the wake of President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops.
Special Inspector General John Sopko also noted that al Qaeda, the extremist group whose attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, prompted America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, is active again in 15 provinces.
“If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak,” he wrote.
Mr. Sopko’s 140-page report, completed late last week, said Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11 “left uncertain whether even the modest gains of the last two decades will prove sustainable.”
By Monday, the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan’s capital. The rapid takeover has forced the administration to scramble, sending thousands of U.S. troops back to Kabul to protect a massive and hasty airlift operation to evacuate Americans and others trapped there.
“All the signs have been there,” Mr. Sopko told NPR this week. He declined an interview request Tuesday.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that the administration was warning Americans to get out of Afghanistan weeks before the collapse, but “many chose to stay right until the end.”
“When a civil war comes to an end … there are going to be scenes of chaos,” Mr. Sullivan said. “That is not something that can be fundamentally avoided.”
Congress created the watchdog’s office in 2008 to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. reconstruction and military efforts in the country. Mr. Sopko’s latest report chronicled America’s two decades of costly attempts at nation-building and the lessons learned.
The U.S. has spent about $1 trillion on war fighting and rebuilding and more than $6 trillion when Iraq and Pakistan are included in the 20-year effort.
A total of 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, while another 20,666 U.S. troops have been injured.
At least 66,000 Afghan troops and more than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 Afghans have been injured since 2001.
Before the collapse, the Biden administration had requested another $3.3 billion for Afghan reconstruction in fiscal 2022, despite the decision to withdraw all troops.
“With oversight capabilities dwindling and $6.68 billion still in the pipeline for Afghanistan reconstruction, the risk of waste, fraud and abuse is certain to increase,” the report stated.
The mistakes made by four U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, over 20 years are almost too numerous to count.
“The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve,” Mr. Sopko’s report stated. “Throughout the 20-year campaign, there were recurring complaints by U.S. officials and commentators that there was no strategy.”
For example, in 2009, then-Vice President Joe Biden returned from a trip to Afghanistan and told President Obama, “If you ask 10 of our people what we’re trying to accomplish here, you get 10 different answers. This has been on autopilot.”
Wrote Mr. Sopko, “It is difficult to reconcile complaints about a lack of strategy with the fact that U.S. administrations consistently articulated ends, developed ways, and allocated means for the mission.”
Because the Taliban had been making steady military gains over the past decade, Mr. Sopko said, the insurgent group was “poorly motivated to indulge peace talks” recently in Doha, Qatar.
A senior Afghan government negotiator said of the talks, “[The Taliban] thought they were there just to discuss the terms of [the government’s] surrender. They said, ‘We don’t need to talk to you. We can just take over.’”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said he will hold a hearing on U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
“Congress was told repeatedly that the Afghan Defense and Security Forces were up to the task, that it had the troops, equipment and willingness to fight,” Mr. Menendez said. “To see this army dissolve so quickly after billions of dollars in U.S. support is astounding.”
Since striking an agreement in February 2020 with the Trump administration, “the Taliban has significantly increased violence, including assassination campaigns of government officials, journalists, and civil society actors,” Mr. Sopko’s report said. “Meanwhile, the Taliban’s ties to al Qaeda only appear to be deepening, with al Qaeda fighters now spread across 15 Afghan provinces.”
Former Bush administration national security adviser Stephen Hadley told the inspector general, “we originally said that we won’t do nation building, but there is no way to ensure that al Qaeda won’t come back without it.”
A senior NATO official told the inspector general that the first draft of the 2009 U.S. military strategy for Afghanistan “did not even mention al Qaeda because they believed it was ‘no longer a problem.’”
One of Mr. Sopko’s findings is that the U.S. government “did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.” Over the decades, U.S. officials’ lack of knowledge at the local level in Afghanistan “meant projects intended to mitigate conflict often exacerbated it, and even inadvertently funded insurgents,” the report said.
U.S. officials’ reliance on local Afghan partners for information also “made them vulnerable to their manipulation and exploitation.”
“One U.S. official, for example, told [the inspector general] that his team was ‘played all the time by the Afghans,’” the report said. “The form of those manipulations varied, but one of the most damaging saw local Afghan ‘allies’ exploit U.S. agencies for financial gain and share a portion of the proceeds with insurgents, who were paid to refrain from attacking convoys and project sites.”
There were numerous instances of American contractors essentially paying insurgent groups with U.S. tax dollars, Mr. Sopko said.
“Private security contractors who were paid to protect [Department of Defense] and [U.S. Agency for International Development] assets diverted a substantial percentage of their contract awards to insurgents to buy their cooperation — making the insurgents in effect unofficial subcontractors to the U.S. government,” the report said.
Over the years, the inspector general has issued 427 audits, 191 special project reports, 52 quarterly reports and 10 comprehensive “lessons learned” reports about Afghanistan. The office’s criminal investigations have resulted in 160 convictions.
Its findings have often been uncomfortable for administrations.
Former White House national security adviser John Bolton wrote in a book about the Trump administration that President Trump was “raging” about Mr. Sopko during an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 8, 2018. Mr. Bolton said the IG reports on Afghanistan “repeatedly documented wasted tax dollars but also provided amazingly accurate information about the war that any other government would have kept private.”
“I think he’s right,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Sopko, “but I think it’s a disgrace that he can make such things public.”