Congress’ Afghanistan watchdog will continue oversight

John Sopko says much of the U.S. aid sent to the country was stolen by corrupt Afghan officials

John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in February 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in February 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
Posted September 14, 2021 at 4:54pm

The United States may have completed its military withdrawal and chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, but John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, intends to keep asking hard questions.

“There’s still a lot of money in the pipeline” slated for Afghanistan, Sopko said Tuesday during an event hosted by the government watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

Congress created Sopko's position in the fiscal 2008 National Defense Authorization Act to watch over the deluge of funding it was spending on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. Sopko took over the role four years later.

The office will cease to exist once there is no more reconstruction funding to oversee, but in the meantime, Congress continues to want answers, particularly about the collapse of the Afghan Security Forces and police, in whom the U.S. had invested around $90 billion. It also wants to know what happened to American-supplied equipment, Sopko said.

“It’s a phenomenal amount of money that went out the door,” he said. “As far as we can tell, the spigots with the money flowing over there were open wide almost to the end.”

Sopko said that his staff has the expertise to continue even without the ability to visit Afghanistan, which is now under the control of the Taliban.

All told, the United States spent almost $150 billion over 20 years trying to remake Afghan society, only to see the government collapse within weeks of the announcement that all U.S. troops would depart by the end of August. Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul devolved into chaos as U.S. troops airlifted more than 122,000 people out before the Aug. 31 deadline.

Avenues of oversight

Lawmakers from both parties are demanding answers about the handling of the withdrawal and evacuation, particularly after a suicide bombing at one of the airport’s gates killed 13 American servicemembers.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken testified on Capitol Hill this week, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs, are scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee along with U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie on Sept. 28.

Sopko stressed the importance of learning lessons from Afghanistan, lest the United States repeat the same mistakes again.

“The United States is really not prepared for large reconstruction programs like this in a conflict zone,” he said. “Every time we do it, we do it poorly.”

Leaders resolve again and again not to do it, but the U.S. has engaged in three major reconstruction efforts in the last 50 years in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, he noted. The United States would be better off accepting that it will likely find itself engaged in something similar in another challenging part of the world and prepare itself for that mission than simply vowing to never do it again, he said.

Sopko said that he was initially surprised by the speed of the collapse of the Afghan Security Forces, but when he and his staff reflected on it, it seemed inevitable.

Corruption was rampant in the Afghan military, he said. One American commander once told Sopko that 50 percent of the fuel provided by the United States was stolen, he said.

“We spent too much money, too fast, in too small a country, with no oversight,” he said. “Every Afghan you talk to says it was the corruption in the military that led to the military’s downfall.”

And once the U.S. set a departure date, senior Afghan military officials began stealing even more, he said.

Many Afghan soldiers hadn’t been paid in five or six months, and the government didn’t feed them or provide them with bullets, he said. They had very little close air support because there was little or no fuel for the aircraft.

When the Taliban arrived, they often offered government troops a choice: to fight and be killed, or take a bus ticket back home, Sopko said.

Repeated warnings

Much of this information should not come as a surprise to those who have followed Sopko's quarterly reports.

Sopko described how he faced “gale force” headwinds from “people in Washington whose careers were made on ‘happy talk.’”

“There was just a constant drumbeat of ‘Success is almost here, just give us another appropriation,’” Sopko said.

And when Sopko's reports ran afoul of that rosy picture, officials started classifying documents to keep the real picture from public view, he said.

Many of the documents were stamped “NATO Classified,” and not many congressional staffers have that specific clearance, he said, making it even more challenging for lawmakers to get an accurate portrait of the state of play.

“I remember actually briefing members on this, and they couldn’t bring their staff in,” he said. “So the member knows this, but he can’t talk to anybody about what he just saw.”

Noting that he has been in Washington since the 1980s — Sopko previously worked as chief counsel for oversight and investigations for the House Energy and Commerce Committee when it was chaired by Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell — he said that in his experience the government doesn’t classify good news, and if it does by mistake, it finds a way to leak it.

So when the government begins to overclassify certain information, Sopko said it's a good guess that there’s a bad news story lurking behind it.

And when they couldn’t classify certain types of information, they stopped collecting it. After Sopko's reports on districts and population under government control began telling a grim story, U.S. officials stopped tallying that data, he said.

“At some point, the U.S. government said that information is no longer relevant,” Sopko said. “What’s relevant is peace. I actually had a general tell me that.”