The Afghan government and the US lost popular support over corruption in Afghanistan, investigator general says
"Although we had predicted major problems ... I think we were surprised, just like everybody else, at the speed to which the [Afghan] government and the military collapsed," John Sopko, head of SIGAR, told The World.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, former President Hamid Karzai, right, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, left, watch the live broadcast of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar after the signing of a peace treaty at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 29, 2016.
Rahmat Gul/AP/File photo
The Taliban raided an ISIS-affiliated hideout in the Afghan capital Kabul killing several insurgents, hours after a deadly bombing outside the Eid Gah mosque on Sunday that left at least five people dead.
No one has taken responsibility for the blast, but the rival ISIS group has ramped up attacks against the Taliban, including the Aug. 26 bombing that killed more than 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel outside Kabul airport.
Though many people dread the harsh elements of Taliban rule, the group does not bring with it a reputation of being corrupt — a stark contrast to the government it ousted — which was notoriously rife with bribery, embezzlement and graft.
The US has invested some $2 trillion in Afghanistan. Corruption and mismanagement plagued the efforts from the start.
One US government agency charged with overseeing money used to rebuild Afghanistan is called SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
John Sopko, who has led SIGAR since 2012, joined The World's host Marco Werman from Washington to discuss the years of mismanagement in the country.
Marco Werman: Inspector general, your job is to sound the alarm when funds are being misused. Tell us in brief what your agency actually does.
John Sopko: We're one of the independent inspectors general created by Congress. And we have audit and criminal investigative authority. And our job, as you rightfully noted, was to ferret out waste, fraud, abuse in the money spent in Afghanistan, as well as to give advice to Congress on any administration on the problems we found and how to fix them.
So, knowing what you knew over the years in Afghanistan, tell me about your reaction when you saw the Taliban take over the country in August.
I have to be honest, although we had predicted problems and major problems for the 10 years I'd been there with the Afghan military and the government, I think we were surprised, just like everybody else, at the speed to which the government and the military collapsed. And not only surprise, but also shock and sadness, because we knew what it meant for a lot of Afghans we had worked with over those years.
In the report, SIGAR talks extensively about corruption. Can you highlight what was going on and could the US have done more to prevent it?
I think the US, and we highlighted the US could have done a lot more, and actually the US contributed a lot to the corruption in Afghanistan, because we spent too much money, too fast in too small a country, with too little oversight. So, the corruption was really endemic, and we're not talking about corruption like you may see in the United States or Europe or elsewhere. We're talking about corruption that's actually baked into the system there. Money was being stolen from us and from all the other allies who contributed for years from the top, all the way down to the bottom.
So, what was the attitude of the Afghan government to this kind of thing that would inevitably lead to dysfunction?
The Afghan government did not take an active response to our criticism on corruption. And I think, in part, because the corruption was so endemic. They were very good at checking the box. They would create an organization, hold a conference, rename something. We were really upset, and repeatedly talked about this in our reports, with not only the [Ashraf] Ghani government, but the [Hamid] Karzai government before that. Now, this doesn't mean there weren't some honest cops — Afghan cops and prosecutors and parliamentarians and judges who tried to do something — but overall, it was a pretty pathetic response to fight corruption in that country.
And what impact did that have on the government's ability to repel the Taliban ultimately?
Well, ultimately it contributed to the Taliban's success, because what happened is, the Afghan people saw how corrupt and incompetent their government was, and they saw it wasn't improving. So, they lost respect for the government and support for the government. They also saw that our government was giving that money to those corrupt officials and those corrupt contractors and those corrupt warlords. So, we lost support.
I imagine, John Sopko, calling this stuff out over the past decade has not made you the most popular man in Washington. How have administration officials and members of Congress responded to your reports?
A lot of members of Congress responded positively and have been very supportive of us and have actually recognized, over the years, what we were doing and the warnings we were giving. Some people in the administration have done that and been very responsive. But once you start a war, it's hard to stop, and once you're in there for 20 years, then it's like changing a ship in the water, trying to slowly move it. We had some successes, but obviously, a lot of things were not taken to heart by some of the administration people. And there there was a groundswell of opposition to some of the ideas we came up with. When we first highlighted the problem of ghost soldiers and ghost police, there were a lot of nameless, faceless bureaucrats who whispered to congressmen and senators and staffers that, "Oh, SIGAR was exaggerating." Well, turned out, we weren't. And it turned out, even the Afghans admitted, for example, right before the collapse, that over 50% of the police in Helmand and other provinces never existed.
So, the first US mission in Afghanistan was to get rid of al-Qaeda, then came the nation building, then came the surge and a strong desire to leave, but nothing happened until this year. How much do you think that constant pivoting led to a lack of mission focus and more corruption?
I mean, the report we came out with, we've been working on summarizing all of our work in what happened over the last 20 years. We've been working on it for a year and it came out, ironically, just a day or two after the collapse of Kabul. That highlighted a number of lessons. We didn't really have a clear, articulated strategy and goal. And so, a lot of things collapsed as a result. So, instead of fighting a 20-year war, doing 20 years of reconstruction, we did it one year at a time. We really never focused our resources on the target. And that also contributed, although I think it's an equal problem, was just a lack of understanding of the political and cultural context of Afghanistan. I mean, we basically empowered the warlords who the Taliban had successfully beaten with the support of the people when we came in. And again, not understanding the context, not understanding the corrupting influence, not understanding how the Afghans hated these people, we empowered them. And, lo and behold, when you go to sleep with dogs, you wake up with fleas. And what we did here is, we made our bed with some very evil, corrupt, powerful individuals in Afghanistan who were hated by the people.
So, John, Congress has called for a review of the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and its military. How do you think Congress will react to its own findings? Will officials be more likely to listen this time around?
Well, I hope they will. I mean, Congress has asked us to answer a number of critical questions to do these. I mean, they've asked us to explain, "Why did the Afghan military collapse so quickly? Why did the Afghan government collapse so quickly? What happened to all the money that we were shipping over there? Particularly, when did we shut off the spigots of money flowing to Afghanistan? What happened to all the weapons? What is happening to all of the women and girls who we supported and all those programs?" I think they're reaching out to us because we have a track record of speaking truth to power. We have a track record of being non-partisan. We've criticized Democrats, we've criticize Republican administrations. We just state the facts. I think a lot of people in Congress actually think we may be the best organization out there to answer those type of questions.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.
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