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Afghanistan in 2019: This is what losing looks like
Not a damn thing is going well in Afghanistan.
That's what your friend and humble narrator took away from a Defense Writers Group breakfast on Wednesday with John Sopko, the famously blunt special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
In contrast to U.S. military officials' optimistic statements on Afghanistan, SIGAR's quarterly reports are among the few public documents that provide an honest account of how bad the situation on the ground really is. On Jan. 2, President Donald Trump said it is "insane" that SIGAR releases so much information about Afghanistan and he told Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to put a stop to it, but the reports continue to be released – for now.
However, almost all of the metrics used to measure successes and failures in Afghanistan have either become classified over time or are no longer collected, Sopko said on Wednesday. The Afghan government has also asked the U.S. military to stop publicly releasing the number of Afghan troops and police who have been killed.
"Embarrassing things tend to get classified in this town," Sopko told reporters. "Governments don't usually classify good news. If they do by mistake, it's leaked."
The unintended consequence of so much data being classified or non-existent is that people in both the United States and Afghanistan are suspicious that the U.S. military is losing the war, Sopko said.
"The Afghan people know which districts are controlled by the Taliban," he said. "The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows. The only people who don't know what's going on are people who are paying for all of this, and that's the American taxpayer. So I'm old school on this. I figure if I'm paying for it — if you're paying for it — you ought to know how well of a job they're doing."
The information that is publicly available does not inspire confidence.
More than 17 years into the war, the U.S. government has failed to kick the terrorists out of Afghanistan, Sopko said.
SIGAR is concerned that Afghan commandos are fighting so often that they are at risk of burning out, while Afghanistan's conventional forces have not shown any significant improvement, he said. In fact, SIGAR heard last year that the Taliban told fighters to buy their weapons from Afghan government forces, "Because they're better and cheaper," he said.
While the Afghan security forces look formidable on paper, the U.S. military is paying the salaries of tens of thousands of Afghan troops and police officers who do not exist, Sopko said. They are called "ghosts" and SIGAR has no idea how many of these phantasms are counted as combat ready forces.
While the U.S. military gives money to the Afghan defense ministry to pay for soldiers, those funds only go to troops who have been validated and biometrically enrolled in the Afghan military's pay and personnel system, said Lt. Ubon Mendie, a spokesman for Operation Resolute Support.
The Afghan police are funded through a program administered by the United Nations, Mendie said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has stopped attacking Taliban drug labs because the highly publicized airstrikes — involving F-22 Raptors and other extremely expensive aircraft — proved to be pointless, he said.
The labs that were destroyed were extremely small, smaller than the size of a dining room table, and each cost about $500 to build and operate, Sopko said. It is also unclear whether the barrels of liquid in the labs that were hit contained drug-making chemicals or water.
"If you blow them up, you'll blow up a few before the bad guys realize: 'Oh, well maybe we should move it to a mosque,'" Sopko said. "The second thing is: How much money was actually eliminated from the Taliban and from the drug warlords was totally exaggerated. The DEA told us from Day 1 that those amounts that we were claiming we were destroying were — I won't say 'fictional' — but there was no basis for that."
None of the bombing missions did anything to reduce Afghanistan's annual poppy crop, he said.
All of this is a long way of saying that Afghanistan is basically that cartoon of a dog drinking coffee in the middle of a fire.
You know the one I'm talking about:
The question remains whether the Afghan war is worth the continued sacrifices of U.S. service members and their families. No one seems to have a good answer.
"In Afghanistan we are setting the conditions for a political settlement which safeguard our national interests," according to a statement from Operation Resolute Support. "U.S. service members are committed to the defense of our nation and will continue to sacrifice wherever required to protect the people of the United States."
With the United States talking directly to the Taliban as part of peace negotiations, it is time for U.S. officials to begin planning for what should happen if the Afghanistan war finally does end, Sopko said. For example, the Taliban has 60,000 fighters, who would need to be reintegrated into society, and the Afghan government cannot afford to pay for its security forces.
"We're trying to educate Congress and new people in the administration as well as the people that, hey, this is not the forgotten war; this should not be Korea," Sopko said. "There are still Americans dying there — 2,400 Americans died. We've spent close to $1 trillion in Afghanistan. All of it is at risk if we screw up on the day after a peace agreement."
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 14 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at email@example.com or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.
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