WASHINGTON -- The man who attempts to hold U.S. government agencies accountable for work in Afghanistan described America's nation-building effort there over the last 13 years as "an abysmal failure."
"It seems like no one is responsible for anything in Afghanistan except to get the money out," said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, during a meeting with reporters Tuesday. He blamed a bureaucratic culture that lacks leadership and a clear mission.
"When you go to Afghanistan and you talk to the people in the (U.S.) Embassy, I don't see anybody in charge on developing the economy," he said. "There are people who work on it ... but there is nobody who is tasked with saying, 'Your job is to work with the Afghans and make certain they get a viable economy. And if you don't succeed, you will be held accountable.'"
The SIGAR office has issued more than 160 reports since President Barack Obama appointed Sopko to the post in 2012. Yet despite detailing how U.S. agencies and contractors have squandered billions of dollars in Afghanistan, he has seen few harsh consequences for those involved.
"I have not found anybody who's lost a job for screwing up -- and there have been a lot of screw-ups in Afghanistan," Sopko said. He offered a comparison to youth sports, where each player receives a participation trophy. "Everybody succeeded in Afghanistan, everybody got a promotion, everybody got a better job."
Sopko, who oversees an office of some 200 auditors and investigators, blamed an absence of planning at the start of the war in 2001 for the country's ongoing economic struggles.
"When you go into a country like Afghanistan, you should to take into account what the government and the economy is faced with, and you should take into account -- unless you want to create a client state for X number of years -- how do you develop a sustainable economy? And we have not seen that."
Sopko also criticized the number of U.S. agencies involved in economic development in Afghanistan, singling out a business operations task force run by the Department of Defense.
"They've spent approximately $700, $800 million, and as far as we can see, they've accomplished nothing," he said. His office has received "serious, credible allegations" of mismanagement by the task force and has initiated an investigation.
Sopko further faulted the U.S. government for misreading the capabilities of the Afghan military. He gave the example of the $500 million spent by the DoD on transport planes that were intended for use by the Afghan air force but mostly sat idle. The planes were later demolished and sold for $32,000 in scrap metal.
For future nation-building efforts, Sopko added, U.S. agencies need to address their failures sooner rather than later.
"You can't fix problems by hiding them," he said. "You can't ignore issues and assume they're going to get better on their own."