John Sopko And SIGAR Sounded Afghanistan Warning For Years Before Kabul Fell NPR speaks with John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, about how the U.S. military and Afghan government arrived at this point.

A Watchdog Group Had Been Sounding The Warning About Afghanistan's Meltdown For Years

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, to keep you updated, I want to note, we are learning an additional thousand U.S. troops are headed to Kabul. That will put overall numbers up to some 6,000 U.S. troops there. These latest troops are coming from the 82nd Airborne Division.

I want to bring in John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction these last nine years. Since 2012, Sopko has been the top government watchdog, monitoring the billions upon billions of U.S. tax dollars channeled towards training the Afghan military.

John Sopko, good to speak with you again.

JOHN SOPKO: Good to speak to you also (unintelligible).

KELLY: I will put to you the question you just heard Don put to Jane Ferguson there - your personal reaction to today's events as someone who has tracked Afghanistan so closely all these years now.

SOPKO: Well, it's tragic. And it's very sad because of the people and expense that's - we have spent over the last 20 years. But I...

KELLY: Is it surprising?

SOPKO: No. It's not surprising. I mean, we've been warning - my little agency - for the last almost 10 years about issues with the ANDSF, that's the Afghan security forces' capabilities and sustainment. 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 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. So these reports have come out. And I know I've spoken on NPR a number of times...

KELLY: Yeah.

SOPKO: ...And testified up 50 or 60 times about this. So it's been out there. I think the speed maybe is a little bit of a surprise. But the fact that the ANDSF could not fight on their own should not have been a surprise to anyone.

KELLY: Does not surprise you. Your job, as I mentioned, is to follow the money. And you - the - how much has the U.S. spent over these two decades of war?

SOPKO: Well, we've spent 145 billion on reconstruction. And included in that is $88 billion just for the train, advise and assist mission to the Afghan military police. But overall, we've spent close to $1 trillion, if you include the war fighting...

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Wow.

SOPKO: ...The actual paying for our troops to do the fighting.

KELLY: And of course, it's bigger than that if you start counting, you know, ongoing health expenses for veterans, all those type things.

SOPKO: Oh, gosh.

KELLY: Yeah.

SOPKO: Yeah.

KELLY: I mean, I've seen numbers of around 2 trillion if you...

SOPKO: Yeah

KELLY: If you look at the overall war effort. Does that sound right...

SOPKO: Yeah.

KELLY: ...To you?

SOPKO: Yeah, (unintelligible).

KELLY: Well, help...

SOPKO: Yeah.

KELLY: I'm curious how this works going forward, because, as you know, the Biden administration has committed to continuing to support Afghanistan, continuing to support the Afghan people, including financially. How does that work if the Taliban is in charge?

SOPKO: That's a very good question. And I think I can't answer that. Congress has - hasn't appropriated funds yet for this - the upcoming year. But I think the determination will have to be made by the administration on Congress of whether we're going to fund a Taliban government. And it does give us the opportunity to put some conditions, particularly for protecting the rule of law, protecting women's rights, the rights of civil society, and the rights of a free and open press. But that's really a call for the administration and Congress.

KELLY: Your final report, special inspector general, is out on Tuesday. I understand it is embargoed until release. Can you give us any preview? Is there anything in that report to give us hope?

SOPKO: Hope in one way. And that is it - this basically highlights the lessons we should learn from the last 20 years. And it goes into great detail about why the Afghan security forces failed. And where the hope is - we can't rewind the clock in Afghanistan. But we are doing similar work in other countries. And we should learn from the 20 years, not try to forget it and wash it away or sweep it under the rug. I mean, we did that at...

KELLY: And what is that top-line lesson?

SOPKO: Well, the top-line lesson is that we have a very difficult time developing and implementing a coherent rule, a multi-agency approach to these type of problems. And we got serious problems with the way we send people over there and HR the system. We have serious problems about our procurement system. And we have serious problems of going into a country and not understanding the culture and the makeup of that country. Now, those are just four of - we have seven or eight big lessons.

KELLY: Yeah.

SOPKO: But I think everyone should read that report so we don't repeat the mistakes of the last 20 years.

KELLY: We just have a few seconds left. But if I'm hearing you right, it sounds like you're saying after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. was still trying to figure out what the mission was, what we were trying to do there.

SOPKO: You're absolutely correct. The mission kept changing time and time again. And I think if President Biden was correct when he went over there are a number of years ago - and he said every soldier he talked to felt we had a different mission.

KELLY: Right.

SOPKO: I mean, that was clearly a problem and not only with us in the United States. Remember, we had 20 or 30 allies there. They all had different missions.

KELLY: All different missions...

SOPKO: So, I mean...

KELLY: ...And all figuring out what the mission is going forward. John Sopko, we will leave it there. Thank you so much...

SOPKO: Thank you.

KELLY: ...For your time.

SOPKO: A pleasure.

KELLY: Special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

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