‘All the Signs Have Been There’ Predicting Afghan Security Force Collapse, IG Says

A Taliban fighter patrols in Wazir Akbar Khan in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.

A Taliban fighter patrols in Wazir Akbar Khan in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Rahmat Gul / AP

For more than a decade, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has been warning about “ghost soldiers” and corruption to anyone willing to pay attention.

For all the professed shock in Washington about the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, one senior government official was notably unsurprised. John Sopko, who has served as the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction since July 2012, told NPR on Monday, “It's not surprising … I mean, we've been warning—my little agency—for the last almost 10 years about issues with the [Afghan National Security Forces’] capabilities and sustainment,” he said. “All the signs have been there. I mean, we've been shining a light on it in multiple reports going back to when I started in 2012 about changing metrics, about ghosts, ghost soldiers who didn't exist, about poor logistics, about the fact that the Afghans couldn't sustain what we were giving them.”

The speed of the Taliban takeover “maybe is a little bit of a surprise,” however “the fact that the ANDSF could not fight on their own should not have been a surprise to anyone.” Anyone, that is, who had read any of the dozens of reports produced by Sopko’s office covering the 20-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Anyone who had listened to Sopko’s testimony at dozens of Congressional hearings. Anyone familiar with the 400 recommendations made by Sopko’s office, based on on-the-ground observations and more than 700 interviews with U.S. military officials and diplomats, Afghan security personnel and government officials. 

As the United States was finishing its withdrawal of troops by the August 31 deadline ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks—a departure date President Biden announced in April—the Taliban on Sunday completed its rapid takeover of Afghanistan. As the situation deteriorated over the weekend, the Pentagon deployed thousands of additional troops to the country to help with evacuations. 

With thousands of new U.S. troops surging into Kabul to help with the chaotic withdrawal, a bipartisanship group of 44 lawmakers wrote to Biden on Tuesday asking the administration to continue evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghan allies beyond the August 31 deadline for “as long as necessary” to get them out.

“We don't have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III during a briefing on Wednesday afternoon. “We're going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated, and I'll do that as long as we possibly can. Until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”

SIGAR’s Critical Role 

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction office was established in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2008 to audit and investigate spending on reconstruction projects in the country, a job made increasingly difficult as U.S. officials began classifying or eliminating an ever greater number of metrics designed to measure progress. 

On Tuesday, the SIGAR office released a new “lessons learned” report that outlines the extraordinary cost of the war in Afghanistan in terms of blood and treasure. Thus far, 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed, and 20,666 U.S. troops injured. The United States also has spent $145 billion on reconstruction programs for both security forces and government institutions, in addition to the $837 billion spent by the Pentagon on warfighting.

“Twenty years later, much has improved, and much has not. If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak,” said the report. “By most measurements, security has progressively worsened. Even after the U.S. government spent more than $83 billion building the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, the Taliban controls more territory than at any point in the war, the number of effective enemy initiated attacks is steadily increasing, and fear for personal safety among Afghans has never been higher.” 

Catherine Lutz, professor and co-founder and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University, on Monday said, “The SIGAR office is needed more than ever now as we try to understand how this long tragedy could have possibly happened and who profited off of it. It is the only way the government may prevent such a thing in the future.”

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, said “SIGAR was shouting from the rooftops about many of these problems, but an IG can only be as effective as there are people who are willing to listen and act on their findings.”

A key problem for all U.S. agencies operating in Afghanistan was their inability to properly oversee their own projects, leading inevitably to waste and corruption. As the SIGAR's most recent report noted, for example:

“A SIGAR audit from January 2015 reported that Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A), which oversaw the training and equipping of Afghan forces, was unable to provide sufficient staff to verify Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police attendance data. This gap allowed corrupt officials to artificially increase their payroll numbers, leading to “ghost soldiers”—nonexistent personnel created to draw a salary. Because CSTC-A was unable to verify employment rates, the SIGAR audit warned that more than $300 million a year was spent paying salaries to nonexistent personnel in the Afghan security forces.”

“Those who read SIGAR's reports unfortunately aren't very surprised by what we're seeing happen,” Smithberger said.

The rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan will undoubtedly impact SIGAR’s ability to do its job going forward, although prior to the Taliban takeover the office had three people still in country with plans to continue the oversight work. Those employees were safely evacuated, the office reported on Wednesday.  

Republican staff on the House Oversight and Reform Committee said in a statement to Government Executive on Tuesday that the Biden administration's “botched withdrawal” from the county will likely lead to taxpayer dollars going into “Taliban or terrorist hands.” 

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member on the committee, “has repeatedly called for accurate tracking of taxpayer funds in Afghanistan to avoid just that,” the statement said. “Today, that’s all the more important as America along with the rest of the world watches President Biden’s failed leadership result in catastrophe for Afghanis, Americans, and our allies.”

Nelly Decker, spokesperson for the majority staff on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement to Government Executive, “the collapse of the Afghan Government will not have come as a surprise to anyone who has read SIGAR’s reports” as for years “Sopko warned about the fragility of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, their dependence on U.S. and Coalition assistance—especially to maintain their air force capability—and the widespread corruption that weakened and undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan Government.” 

During a hearing before the committee’s national security panel in March, “Sopko testified that, ‘longstanding problems and recent developments have created an unprecedented level of threat to the success of the U.S. reconstruction program in Afghanistan,’” she said. “While the situation on the ground remains fluid, we will continue to look to Inspector General Sopko to help inform our critical oversight of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.”

Importance of the Office

Walter Shaub, senior ethics fellow at POGO who previously served as director of the Office of Government Ethics, tweeted August 14 that SIGAR “did what it could to expose how the government was misleading us for two decades, about the number of troops we sent, the fact that we were losing, the corruption, and all the rest.” 

Prior to the fall of the Afghanistan government, experts largely agreed that continued oversight was needed as long as the United States is still spending money in Afghanistan for reconstruction.

David Schwendiman, who served as director of forward operations for SIGAR from 2014 to 2015, told Government Executive he has “​​immense admiration and respect for John and for all of my former colleagues at SIGAR.” The quarterly reports and lessons learned reports the office put out “should be read and studied by everyone involved in the withdrawal and in what will come after the withdrawal is complete.” 

Smithberger said Sopko has been “very effective.” While IGs report to both Congress and the executive branch, some mainly report to the latter, “but I think Sopko has always acutely understood the importance of Congress as a client for his work,” she said. “When he’s encountered roadblocks being able to get information, when he’s had concerns about over classification, he’s been able to effectively go to Congress to be able to make sure the American public gets the information that they deserve.” 

Getting such information may be more important than ever now. 

“We have institutions that have been fighting this war that are the opposite of transparent; that the most secretive organizations in government that can operate with the assurance that their attempts at keeping the public from viewing their activities are going to be successful,” said Lutz.

It would be “absolutely wrong” to close the office when the last U.S. personnel leave Afghanistan because there is still more to observe about the money that went to reconstruction, she said. Just because troops are leaving does not mean the “story has been told despite all these pages of SIGAR reports.”

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