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Inspector general examines why the Afghan army dissolved after the U.S. withdrawal

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Despite 20 years of training and nearly $90 billion invested, Afghan forces crumbled in August 2021 following the U.S. withdrawal from the country. The first U.S. government report released today takes a look at how and why Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed. The person in charge of the report, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, joins us. John, right off the bat, the $90 billion question is who is accountable?

JOHN SOPKO: Well, there's a lot of blame to go around. Unfortunately, we had been warning - and as well as others in and outside of the administrations for years - that the Afghan military - the way we were training and advising them - was not able to function on its own. And it was really only a question of time when the ANDSF, which is the Afghan Defense Forces, would collapse.

MARTINEZ: What was the No. 1 reason, the most important reason why, as you say, the Afghan military, despite our investment in them, could not function on their own?

SOPKO: Well, I think the No. 1 cause we highlight is the impact on the morale of the average Afghan soldier and police officer after the withdrawal agreement was signed, as well as the April 2021 announcement by the Biden administration about the troops and the contractors leaving. Basically, it left the Afghan soldiers in the lurch, and their morale was devastated. That's what this report found.

MARTINEZ: What were the contractors providing that Afghan forces could not do for themselves or learn to do for themselves?

SOPKO: The contractors maintained basically all of the Western equipment, particularly the air assets that we had given the Afghans. And after we announced we were withdrawing our support and then cut back dramatically the amount of U.S. air support, the Afghans had to rely on their own little air force. And within a matter of weeks after the contractors left, 60% of the Blackhawks that we had provided them were grounded because they couldn't maintain them. So it was a house of cards to start with. But once the contractors were pulled out, it was like pulling all the sticks out of a Jenga pile.

MARTINEZ: Why wasn't the army in Afghanistan trained enough in that two-decade span?

SOPKO: Basically, there was no U.S. or NATO government responsible for this. Other problem we highlight is that we trained them to look and act and fight like the U.S. military fight. Problem is they didn't have the capabilities to do that. We never really trained them on logistics. Their logistics were horrible. Now, this isn't the mean that the average Afghan soldier or police officer didn't fight. They fought very hard to the end, but they felt abandoned, and they were basically abandoned by their own government.

MARTINEZ: So is it fair to say that the Afghan government did not support its forces well enough, and that's one of the bigger reasons why it led to their eventual collapse?

SOPKO: Well, that's another key takeaway we had from the report. I don't want to say the blame is all on the side of the United States. The Afghan government, particularly the the last administration, didn't appreciate the peace negotiation. They believed that Biden and the Trump administrations weren't going to go through with it. As a result, they never really developed - by they, I mean the Ghani government - failed to develop a national security strategy until it was too late.

And a number of the people we interviewed said that President Ghani became almost paranoid toward the end, thinking that all of the Western-trained generals and general officers were a threat. So he kept replacing military officials who were really well-trained with some old-guard communist generals in almost all the army corps. Then again, the prior Afghan administration never really focused on the serious problem of corruption that was endemic.

MARTINEZ: You know, and one of the things after everything fell apart was - that I think a lot of people are wondering, how could the U.S. have not known that this was about to happen? So how much of this was known by the Pentagon, by U.S. officials, by administrations during the United States' presence in Afghanistan?

SOPKO: I mean, I can't speak for political appointees and what they were told and all that. We've been issuing reports - over 700 reports, I think, we have issued - highlighting serious problems. The information was out there about the Afghan military not being able to fight on its own. I think one of our senior generals, General Dunford, testified before he left his leadership role there a number of years ago, saying that once we start the withdrawal, it's only a matter of time before the Afghan military collapses. So this wasn't a secret.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. So if it wasn't a secret and alarm bells were definitely being rung all over the place, who is accountable?

SOPKO: Well, we indicate that there is a tendency to think the answer to all the problems is just pour more money in. There's a problem with that. There's a problem that I've highlighted before that there's a tendency to only give good news. And the way our system works with annual appropriations and short rotations of the State Department aid and military officers - that they have to show success for their rotation.

And I'm not here to point fingers at any particular administration or official. That's not the job of this report. We're stating what the facts are. And this is the first U.S. government analysis of what was going on for the last 18 months in Afghanistan and how it impacted the military. And I think our government should learn from it. We will do this again. I have warned the administrations of this for years. We will say we're not going to do it, but we're going to do it again, and we should learn from this.

MARTINEZ: That's John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. John, thank you.

SOPKO: Well, thank you very much. It's always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCOEUR'S "CONTACT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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