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There's No Easy Answer To Explain What Went Wrong In Afghanistan, Sopko Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

So President Biden, as we've heard, blames Afghan leaders and Afghan security forces for what's happened. But in what ways did the United States fail? And what have we learned? A new report from the top government watchdog tries to answer those questions in a report that's out today. John Sopko has been the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction since 2012. He monitors the tax dollars that the United States spends in Afghanistan. Good morning, Mr. Sopko.

JOHN SOPKO: Good morning. It's a pleasure to be with you.

KING: Just on security alone, the United States spent billions of dollars arming and training Afghan security forces, and yet the Taliban are now in power. What went so wrong here?

SOPKO: Well, there's no easy answer to that, but a lot of problems happened. The first and foremost is we tried to design and build a military that looked and acted like we do, and that didn't take into consideration the situation in Afghanistan. You had a, basically, illiterate military that was not used to highly technical weapons. And they couldn't sustain. I think that's what you're hearing more and more of, is that we gave them weapons, which in some cases, their air force did a pretty good job with and their special forces, but the vast majority of the Afghan military did not know how to use them and did not know how to use them by themselves. So it was a sustainability issue. We basically...

KING: We had 20 years, though...

SOPKO: Yes.

KING: I just wonder - we had 20 years. Why didn't we figure that out before this week?

SOPKO: Oh, some people did figure it out. We've been reporting on the problems for at least 10 years. But that goes back to a situation where we ignored the timelines, and we wanted to report quick, positive results. I don't know how many generals I heard who have talked about - we were turning the corner. We turned the corner so many times we looked like a top just spinning out of control. And that was a major problem also. We didn't really fess up to the American people and to the Congress these particular problems. And when we assess, to try to assess this, we then faced the situation many times where the government then classified the information we were trying to give to the American people and Congress.

KING: OK, so things were kept secret. President Biden said yesterday that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was finished 10 years ago. Let's take a listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We severely degraded al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago. Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.

KING: He says the mission was accomplished 10 years ago, and yet we stayed for another 10 years. If it wasn't nation building, what was the goal of U.S. involvement? Because there were years where it certainly seemed like we were interested in the project of nation building.

SOPKO: You're absolutely correct. And what happened is - and this is one of the things our report talks about - we really struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what we hoped to achieve. And when we did, it would change and would change repeatedly. And that's one of the problems. And nation building became one of the strategies, like many other strategies that were developed. And that's a significant explanation for what happened today. I mean, keep in mind that although we had been there for 20 years, if you look at the strategies we developed in the personnel there, we didn't fight a 20-year war; we fought one war 20 times because we rotated the personnel.

I mean, the irony is, in the midst of this meltdown in Kabul just in June and July of this year, the State Department performed their - what we call the annual lobotomy. They pulled out 80%, 90% of the personnel who had been there for a year to replace them with new recruits. And the problem is those new people didn't even know where the bathrooms were. And, of course, they came in right in the midst of the crisis on the SIV issue. So you're bringing in new people to deal with long-term issues. So that's something our report highlights, is we have a problem with our personnel system, as well as a problem of monitoring and evaluating our programs. And we tend to ignore real monitoring and evaluation to our detriment.

KING: Who do you hold responsible for this, Mr. Sopko?

SOPKO: You know, there is no one president or one decision, and that is - that can be held accountable. There's a lot of people who should be held accountable, and a lot of programs should be held accountable. The report we issued today is based on 13 years of our experience there - over 700 interviews, over 700 reports, including 10 lessons-learned reports. We try not to point the finger at an individual because that's not useful right now. We want to try to learn from those 20 years so we don't repeat it.

And let me just add one thing. There's a tendency after failures like this or Vietnam to sweep it under the rug and say, we're never going to do it again. Well, after Vietnam, we eliminated a lot of the capabilities to carry out counterinsurgencies and to try to develop countries. And guess what? We did do it again. We did it in Iraq. We did it in Afghanistan. So what we're trying to tell people with this report is, let's try to learn from the 20 years so we don't do something this bad, this expensive in money, time and energy and lives again.

KING: It seems like ordinary Americans should read this report. I would gather that's the advice you'd give us all. What is the biggest lesson after the 13 years of investigation you did?

SOPKO: The biggest lesson goes back to the point you made about strategy. We didn't really have a strategy. We also had unrealistic timelines. So there's not one key issue; I think there's a number of them. Don't do something if you can't sustain it, and don't go into a country unless you understand the context of the people and their culture. So - and lastly, keep monitoring and evaluating and honestly report what is going on to the American taxpayer.

KING: John Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Thank you, sir, for your time.

SOPKO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.