Everything America did wrong in Afghanistan, according to the top US government watchdog
'We have to be honest with the American people.'
The Taliban currently have a knife to the throat of the Afghan government in Kabul. While the Afghan military still has a chance to succeed, it will lose if it keeps on its present course, said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The precarious situation facing Afghanistan’s government and security forces is the result of two decades of mistakes by American civilian and military officials, Sopko told reporters during a Defense Writers Group event on Thursday.
Sopko, who consistently pointed out the failings of the U.S. government’s program to redevelop Afghanistan, provided reporters with a detailed explanation of why Aghan security forces are in such poor shape.
He also warned that it is vitally important for the United States to learn from its repeated mistakes over the past two decades.
“Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals or the ambassadors or the people in the administration saying ‘We’re never going to do this again,’” Sopko said. “That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam: We’re never going to do this again. And lo and behold, we did Iraq and we did Afghanistan. We will do this again and we really need to think and learn from the 20 years in Afghanistan.”
The following is a partial transcript of John Sopko’s comments at Thursday’s Defense Writers Group event. His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.
We have a tendency of building other governments and other militaries in our image and likeness. I think that’s normal.
So, we came into Afghanistan thinking that we would create a strong central government and that’s where our focus would be – and that was a mistake. And if you read some of the lessons learned reports done by USAID [United States Agency for International Development] for the 20 or 30 years before, they said it was a mistake. And if you talked to any experts on Afghanistan, they would have said it was a mistake.
The problem is we didn’t listen to any of them. So that was our first problem.
Then the military goes in and with short tours of duty – and the requirement that these officers of ours have to show success in their short term of duty – you look for short successes. And one of them is not building an infrastructure and building a capability of providing boots, bullets, and food, and pay in the long-term.
So, we emphasized – again, it goes back to these short timelines we set. And, we basically forced our generals, forced our military, forced our ambassadors, forced the USAID to try to show success in short timelines, which they themselves knew were never going to work. And that’s the big problem.
So, you focused on – the military in particular – focused on – during the surge, we were bringing troops in, but we knew we were leaving. So, we had to try to turn things around real quickly. So, what was the answer? Well, pour in a lot more money.
And pouring a lot more money just created a lot more waste; it created more corruption, which alienated the Afghan people. So, we basically hurt ourselves by doing this.
I can’t overemphasize too much: These short timelines, which have no basis in reality – except the political reality of the appropriations cycle or whatever’s popular at the moment – is dooming us to failure in countries like Afghanistan.
Now, I don’t know if that answers your questions but that’s one of the problems: By focusing on the immediate security situation and not the long-term sustainability – and not logistics.
Let me just remind you. Napoleon said during the 1800s that an army moves on its stomach. And this is still true. It hasn’t changed since the 1800s. And if you expect the Afghan military to win the hearts and the minds of the Afghan people, you have to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan military.
So, if you don’t pay them; you don’t feed them; you don’t support them; you don’t give benefits to widows and orphans on a regular basis; you don’t have MEDEVAC capabilities – then the average Afghan soldier is saying, ‘What the heck am I dying for?’
And that’s another problem: We didn’t focus on logistics. And every time we had a problem with the Afghan military, we changed the goalposts on how we were rating them.
I mean, you know, we’ve got chapter and verse on that. Four times, I think, we went in and looked at the assessment tools that the U.S. government was using, the military. And every time we went in, the U.S. military changed the goalposts and made it easier to show success.
And then, finally, when they couldn’t even do that. They classified the assessment tool. So, they knew how bad the Afghan military was – and if you had a clearance, you could find out – but the average American, the average taxpayer, the average Congressman, the average person working in the embassy wouldn’t know how bad it was. And we were paying for it.
So that is the horrible thing. And again: Changing the goalposts. I remember Gen. [John] Nicholson saying the new standard for success is how much of population, Afghan population, is controlled by the Afghan government. And he set as the goal 80 percent.
And then it looked like we were going down, not going to make the 80 percent by the end of his tour, the goal changed. The new goal was peace. So, you tell me how the train, advise, and assist mission – and whether the soldiers are getting paid, whether they could shoot straight, is linked to the ultimate goal of peace.
I refer to two words that can describe Afghanistan: One is this ‘hubris’ that we can somehow take a country that was desolate in 2001 and turn it into little Norway in that timeframe. And the other is ‘mendacity.’
We exaggerated, over-exaggerated – our generals did, our ambassadors did, all of our officials did – to Congress and the American people about how we’re just turning the corner; we’re about ready to turn the corner. We can give you chapter and verse about how many of our generals talked about just about ready to win.
Well, we turned the corner so much we did 360 degrees – we’re like a top. That is the problem of Afghanistan. And that, unfortunately, is a problem not just with Afghanistan. I think you find it in other countries where we’ve gone in.
We have to be honest. We have to be honest with ourselves And we have to be honest with the American people, who pay for this – not only in money but also in blood and treasure.
So, I’m sorry. It’s a complicated issue. This is why we got what we got right now.
More great stories on Task & Purpose
- Step inside SERE School, where military grade hide-and-seek meets life-and-death struggle
- An Army veteran was told she never served. Her viral response was the ultimate mic drop.
- In case you were wondering: No, Russia’s new fighter jet can’t fly at twice the speed of light
- This Afghan interpreter became an American soldier. Now he’s on a mission to save his family
- A gamer leaked classified tank specs online so he could win a dumb argument
- Want to write for Task & Purpose? Learn more here and be sure to check out more great stories on our homepage.