The US was doomed in Afghanistan and will repeat mistakes if it doesn’t learn from them, top watchdog warns

Afghanistan
President Joe Biden has said the US would complete its military withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31, 2021. Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • The US is withdrawaing its troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting there.
  • The US reconstruction effort during that period was flawed and its failings were obscured by US officials.
  • “Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals … saying we’re never going to do this again,” the watchdog warned.
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The US approach to reconstructing Afghanistan was inherently flawed, and those mistakes could easily be repeated, the top watchdog for that reconstruction effort warned Thursday in an unsparing assessment of the 20-year war effort.

John Sopko, who has been the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction since July 2012, told reporters at a Defense Writers Group event that the US repeatedly “moved the goalposts” for success in Afghanistan and “kicked the can down the road” in the face of obstacles or failures.

The US tendency to rebuild other governments and militaries in its image is “normal,” but focusing on building a strong central government in Afghanistan was “a mistake,” Sopko said.

“If you read some of the lessons-learned reports done by USAID for the 20 or 30 years before, they said that was a mistake, and if you talk to any experts on Afghanistan, they would have said it was a mistake,” Sopko said. “So that was our first problem.”

Army Special Forces Afghanistan
A Special Forces company commander meets with village elders and Afghan army members in Helmand Province, April 10, 2007. US Army/Specialist Daniel Love

Short timelines for reconstruction projects and short tours for the officials charged with executing them also undermined US efforts.

“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.”

The troop surge between 2009 and 2011 was illustrative of this approach and its consequences, Sopko said.

“We bring troops in, but we knew we were leaving, so we had to try to turn things around really quickly. So what was the answer? Well, pour in a lot more money, and pouring in a lot more money just created more waste and created more corruption, which alienated the Afghan people.”

Short timelines based on political imperatives are “dooming us to failure in countries like Afghanistan,” Sopko added.

‘They knew’

Donald Rumsfeld US troops soldiers war in Afghanistan
Then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presents a medal during a ceremony in Khandahar, December 22, 2005. REUTERS/Jim Young

The US government also muddled or obscured its metrics for success. SIGAR tried several times to review the “assessment tools” the US military was using.

“Every time we went in, the US 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,” Sopko said.

“So they knew how bad the Afghan military was, and if you had a clearance you could find out, but the average American … wouldn’t know how bad it was, and we were paying for it,” Sopko added.

Critics have long said US goals in Afghanistan were too broad. Longheld suspicions that the US government was telling a misleading or false story about Afghanistan were confirmed by confidential documents obtained by The Washington Post in 2019.

The documents showed US officials were “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” The Post said.

US Army 101 Airborne Afghanistan
US soldiers recover bundles of fuel at Forward Operating Base Waza K’wah in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. US Air Forces Central Command/Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

Throughout Sopko’s tenure, SIGAR has raised concerns about the US-led train, advise, and assist mission for the Afghan military. Specific concerns included the sustainability of the high-tech hardware the US supplied to Afghan forces, the lack of planning for the “long tail” of logistics, and pervasive corruption.

Ghost soldiers,” created on paper by corrupt commanders who then pocketed those soldiers’ US-paid salaries, remain a problem, as does fuel theft.

A former commander of Combined Security Training Command of Afghanistan told SIGAR that “over half the fuel disappears,” Sopko said. “If you don’t have fuel, the Afghan army doesn’t fight, and if they’re not being paid, they don’t fight, and if they’re not getting the bullets and the food and the other equipment, they don’t fight.”

US military advisors also told SIGAR that regular Afghan troops won’t go into combat without support from Afghan special-operations units. That demand wears out those units, which are also misused when they are available, Sopko said.

The Afghan air force has a major role against the Taliban that will only increase after the US withdraws at the end of August, but it is already being overworked, SIGAR’s latest quarterly report found.

Afghan air force A-29 pilot
An Afghan A-29 pilot talks to maintainers after a mission, at Kandahar Airbase, May 6, 2021. MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES via Getty Images

Five of the air force’s seven airframes saw decreased readiness in June, according to the report, which said all of those airframes are flying at least 25% over their recommended scheduled-maintenance intervals.

Contractors assigned to train Afghan airmen have also been withdrawn. That training has continued virtually, including over Zoom, but such training is not hands-on and limited by a lack of consistent electricity and internet access.

“Our training and our advising and our assistance to the Afghan air force is one of the success stories, and those Afghan pilots and crews and members are not only brave, but they are really as competent as they could be,” Sopko said.

But pilots and mechanics aren’t trained “overnight,” Sopko added. “We’ve highlighted time and again [that] we had unrealistic timelines for all of our work, and that is what now is causing the problems you see with the military.”

Sopko said his office is “still waiting for more details” on the over-the-horizon capability the US military has said for months it would use to continue supporting the Afghan military.

‘Don’t believe what you’re told’

US Army Joseph Collette Afghanistan
A US Army carry team moves the remains of Spc. Joseph P. Collette, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, March 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Afghan military has hardware and funding from the US and can still turn its performance around, but it will have to change its behavior to do so, Sopko said.

The Afghan government isn’t doomed yet. Sopko cited as an example the government of Mohammad Najibullah, which held on for three years after the Soviet military withdrew in 1989, but Najibullah’s government lasted just three months after Russia withdrew the rest of its support in 1992.

“It’s not over,” Sopko said, adding that as long as there is funding there needs to be oversight. “Otherwise it will be wasted, and it’ll actually harm us in the long run.”

The US government “kicked the can down the road” on other reconstruction projects and assessment efforts, including its counternarcotics program, which was “a total failure,” Sopko has said.

Special operations Bagram Afghanistan
US special operators at Bagram air base on a memorial run for seven special operators killed during Operation Anaconda in March 2002, on March 3, 2015. US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz

Sopko said two words could describe the effort in Afghanistan.

“One is this hubris that we can somehow take a country that was desolate in 2001 and turn it into a little Norway,” Sopko said. “The other thing 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.”

Those flaws and that dishonesty are not unprecedented, and they shouldn’t be forgotten, Sopko added.

“What we have identified in Afghanistan is relevant in other places in the world, so don’t believe what you’re told by the generals or the ambassadors or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again. That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam,” Sopko said. “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.”