Watchdog warns US will repeat mistakes of Afghanistan

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The independent watchdog created by Congress to scrutinize the war in Afghanistan eviscerated the U.S. government’s handling of the conflict and said such mistakes are certain to be repeated.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said shifting goals, unrealistic timelines and an influx of untracked money led to an ineffective Afghan security force that has floundered against the Taliban as the U.S. military gets closer to leaving the country by the end of August.

And he said U.S. officials are unlikely to learn from those failures.

“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. We’re never going to do this again. Lo and behold we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again,” Sopko told reporters during a media call.

Sopko’s comments are largely reflected in SIGAR’s latest quarterly report, released earlier Thursday, which details the state of Afghanistan as U.S. forces leave the country after 20 years of fighting the Taliban. President Biden has set an Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal.

When the United States first entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the mission was to push out a Taliban government that allowed al Qaeda militants to plan, train for and carry out attacks on America.

But once boots were on the ground, the mission shifted into that of nation building, an effort to bolster a democratic Afghan government, and train and fund a military that could eventually hold militant groups at bay.

The conflict in Afghanistan quickly ballooned into the largest U.S. redevelopment program, bigger than the Marshall Plan, the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Europe after World War II, Sopko said.

“We basically forced our generals, forced our military, forced our ambassadors, forced the [United States Agency for International Development] USAID to try to show success in short timelines which they themselves knew were never going to work,” he said.

The new report from SIGAR warns the Afghan government could face an “existential crisis” if recent territorial gains by the Taliban are not reversed.

Between March and May, there were nearly 10,400 enemy attacks, about 1,000 more than the same time period in 2020 and 3,000 more than the same period in 2019, according to SIGAR.

At least 26 insider attacks were reported between April 1 and June 30 — as the U.S. military pulls out of the country — killing at least 81 Afghan troops and wounded 37 others. 

Afghan military deaths “have shown an upward trend, especially during the month of June,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan told SIGAR, according to the report.

The oversight office, created in 2009 through the National Defense Authorization Act, is meant to detail the waste, corruption, fraud and violence that has plagued the war-torn country during the U.S. presence.

Sopko said the latest assessment — which found that Afghanistan “remains poor, aid-dependent, and conflict-affected” — should not come as a surprise given the contents of its reports in the past decade.

“We’ve been highlighting problems with our train, advise and assist mission with the Afghan military,” he said.

Sopko pointed to too short timelines and constantly shifting goals as the biggest reasons for the issues in the country.

He also said the U.S. “didn’t focus on logistics.”

“Every time we had a problem with the Afghan military we changed the goal posts in how we were rating them … and made it easier to show success,” Sopko said.

He went on to say that when officials could no longer hide the lack of progress — despite providing more than $837 billion for reconstruction efforts — “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,” he said.

Afghan National Security Forces appeared “surprised and unready, and is now on it back foot,” the report states. “Civilian casualties hit a record high in May and June … the overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn’t addressed and reversed.” 

The same sentiment was addressed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley last week, when he confirmed the Taliban controls about half of the district centers in Afghanistan and appears to have “strategic momentum.”

But Milley also expressed confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to fend off a Taliban takeover, telling reporters, “I don’t think the end game is yet written.”

Sopko said it will be “difficult” for the Afghan forces to succeed.

“If you study Afghanistan, they do have a way of surviving and it’s going to be difficult. They have to come up with a coordinated strategy that uses all of their resources and then they have to do it quickly. … I’m hoping for the best. The last chapter has not been written,” he said.

Tags 9/11 Afghan Taliban Afghanistan Joe Biden Mark Milley SIGAR troop withdrawal War in Afghanistan

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