As the United States debates whether to pull its last 2,500 troops out of Afghanistan by May 1, the war-shattered nation "may be fighting for its very survival," John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, told lawmakers Tuesday.
But after nearly two decades of war, tens of thousands of dead and wounded American troops and countless more Afghans, and $143 billion in U.S. reconstruction support, Afghanistan's prospects for successfully governing and defending itself remain far off, Sopko told the House Oversight subcommittee on national security.
With just 45 days before that crucial deadline, time is running out to make critical decisions. And whether troops stay or go, Sopko said, Congress and the Biden administration need to figure out whether, and to what extent, U.S. support for Afghanistan's reconstruction will continue.
Though Sopko did not take a position on that issue, he cautioned lawmakers that the collapse of the Afghan regime in 1992 followed not the Soviet Union's 1989 troop withdrawal, but Moscow's withdrawal of funding.
The Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, calling for the final pullout of international forces by the beginning of this coming May; that is now under review by the Biden administration. However, violence there has spiked recently as negotiations continue, and some in Washington feel the withdrawal deadline should be delayed -- though the Taliban is strongly against doing so.
Sopko's latest report spelled out eight areas of Afghanistan's reconstruction effort that remain at high risk and need Congress' and the White House's close attention:
- Increasing insecurity, such as intensifying Taliban attacks
- Declining donations and uncertain funding after a peace settlement is reached
- Difficulty in reintegrating ex-fighters from both sides into civil society
- Endemic corruption
- Rampant poverty, illiteracy and other signs of poor economic growth and social development
- Illicit narcotics production and trade, which continues virtually unimpeded
- Threats to women's rights
- Inadequate oversight
Attacks and assassinations carried out by the Taliban have actually increased since the U.S. reached a peace agreement with the insurgent force last February, Sopko told lawmakers.
And in another alarming sign, he said Afghan security forces are "nowhere near achieving self-sufficiency."
The Afghans cannot maintain their own equipment; manage their supply chains; or train new soldiers, pilots or policemen without the Defense Department's 13,000 contractors, who also are supposed to be withdrawn from Afghanistan on May 1 under the terms of the agreement, he said.
And without those contractors, Sopko added, the Pentagon believes every last aircraft in the Afghan air force will be out of commission and unable to carry out combat missions after a few months.
If U.S. troops, contractors and funding -- about 80% of the revenues the Afghan government relies upon come from the U.S. and donors -- are all withdrawn, "it's a disaster for Afghanistan," he said.
Entrenched corruption across Afghan society has hamstrung efforts to rebuild the nation, Sopko said. For example, the problem of "ghost soldiers" remains a major issue, he said. Under this scam, salaries are paid to phony Afghan soldiers and police who exist only on paper. In reality, the paychecks actually line officials' pockets -- and it's a widespread problem, Sopko explained.
"After spending millions of dollars in developing a personnel system to track the soldiers, [the U.S. government] basically said the Afghan government can't run it on their own," he said. "So it's still a problem."
Afghan soldiers are proud and have the will to fight, Sopko said, but the endemic corruption has dealt a blow to their morale and left soldiers wondering what they're fighting for. He cited the case of an Afghan general in the nation's southern region who was stealing government-provided food meant for his troops, forcing them to buy their own food, as an example.
"The Afghans will fight," he said. "The question is, will they fight for a corrupt, incompetent government?"
The embezzlement of reconstruction dollars doesn't just hurt the rebuilding efforts they were meant to fund, Sopko said; it also helps fuel the insurgency. The Taliban and other militants point to that theft, and the effective immunity corrupt officials enjoy, to discredit the Afghan government.
"If you're a high official in Afghanistan, and you're corrupt, you ain't going to jail," he said. Afghan officials "are very good at attending meetings, writing legislation or writing policies or creating organizations, but not too good at actually catching crooks and sending them to jail -- if [the crooks are] important Afghans."
Sopko told lawmakers that "quite a bit" of the $143 billion in reconstruction aid did not end up where it was supposed to. A SIGAR audit of about $63 billion in reconstruction spending found that about $19 billion, or nearly one-third, was wasted, stolen or didn't accomplish anything, he said.
When asked whether some of that money found its way to funding terrorist activity, Sopko replied, "Of course."
Years of trying to improve life for Afghan women have shown little result, he added.
"Despite everything we've done, it is one of the worst places to be a woman ... particularly a [woman] living in the rural environment," Sopko said.
Gains for women's rights have primarily been seen in cities, he said.
But even the Afghan government has a spotty record on women's rights, Sopko explained. He cited a recent announcement from the nation's education ministry barring Afghan girls from singing their national anthem with boys.
"No explanation," he said. "That came out of the blue. But that tells you about a cultural divide between the views of many Afghans, including Afghans in the government."
The Taliban expects to play a role in Afghan government and society after May 1, Sopko said, though it remains uncertain what that might be.
Further complicating matters is that the Taliban does not appear to be a "monolithic" organization, but instead includes individual factions that operate on their own, he explained. And it's hard to say whether the Taliban leaders who might reach a peace agreement can control those factions, he added.
The U.S. government has no idea exactly how much groups like the Taliban have spread their influence throughout Afghanistan, Sopko said, though recent legislation will allow that data to be collected in the future.
"We don't have the people to collect the data on what regions are controlled by the Taliban or other terrorist groups, or what districts," he said.
At one point, Sopko -- who has served as the SIGAR for nearly nine years -- vented his frustration at the U.S. government's perennial inability to hold the Afghans to conditions that were meant to be placed on the provision of aid.
"I feel like it's 'Groundhog Day,' in that movie," he said. "I keep coming back and repeating the same thing. And all of our ambassadors say, 'Oh, it's horrible about corruption in narcotics.' But they don't put any conditions [in place]."