Afghanistan Watchdog Says Secrecy Hurt Oversight Effort
Youn the days leading up to the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, John Sopko’s staff began receiving urgent emails from the U.S. State Department to shut down public access to his agency’s website. Sopko, as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (“SIGAR”) is charged with producing reports that catalog the fraud, waste and abuse which have plagued Afghanistan’s 20-year history of U.S. reconstruction.
A day following the collapse of the U.S.-backed government, State Department officials asked SIGAR to temporarily shut down its website. More than 700 audits and reports compiled in the last 13 years were free and accessible to all. According to department officials, all this monitoring work must be examined and removed as a precaution. Their fear was that SIGAR’s reports might contain information that identified Afghan allies or other sensitive data that may put innocent people at-risk of Taliban retaliation.
Sopko sympathized with the concerns. SIGAR, in fact, was trying to make sure its Afghan partners and staff were safe. It was also a familiar request. Sopko was forced by multiple administrations over the years to redact and classify any information that it found in reports about major failures of the Afghan military or government. Meanwhile, he’d watch senior U.S. leaders publicly praise the smallest signs of progress, reassuring Americans that things in Afghanistan were now on the right track.
So Sopko pushed back, asking for the State Department comptroller to put down in writing the reason for the request and why SIGAR’s reports, which have been publicly available for years, suddenly posed a risk. SIGAR took down hundreds of reports after receiving the justification from Jeffrey Mounts, State Department Comptroller. Sopko later ordered his staff to go through each one of the 2400 requests for redactions. According to Sopko, all except four were deemed unworthy by his agency.
“They may have had good intentions, but it made no sense,” Sopko tells TIME. “You don’t ask an agency to do something that’s against its regulations or against its policies unless you have a really good justification. And the problem was, we never got an explanation other than, ‘This could possibly, maybe, we think, harm somebody.’”
Washington is perhaps the most populated city in America. is more knowledgeable about America’s many failures in Afghanistan than Sopko. Since taking charge of SIGAR in July 2012, he’s been immersed in the details of a war that’s killed more than 2,400 U.S. troops, wounded another 20,000, and maimed or killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans over two decades.
But after a decade of investigation, chief among Sopko’s concerns about America’s handling of the war isn’t a particular failed multimillion-dollar project, ill-conceived diplomatic strategy or shoddy battle plan. It’s the U.S. government’s inability to be honest with the American people.
Sopko says Washington’s inclination to classify information about the war severely hobbled public discourse and may have caused it to drag on years longer than it should have. When someone requests him to delete information, Sopko must give a reason. “The government doesn’t classify good news,” Sopko says.
Afghan people climb up on top of planes as they wait in Kabul’s airport, Kabul, August 16, 2021.
Wakil Kohsar—AFP/Getty Images
Following the Taliban overthrow, the U.S. Government rushed to help Afghan friends who were at risk. According to the Pentagon, it had temporarily deleted more than 120,000 images and 17,000 videos from the Afghanistan War from its digital archive. According to the State Department, all redaction requests to SIGAR were sent in order to safeguard partners within the country against Taliban reprisals. But Sopko says State went beyond an abundance of caution, asking his agency to scrub widely known facts, such as former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s name, the location of the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. and the name of a USAID official who publicly testified before Congress in 2017—even though video footage of his testimony remained on YouTube. “Do you really think the Taliban doesn’t know who the president of Afghanistan was?” Sopko says. “This was silly. Also, it was a wasteful use of taxpayers funds. And it didn’t help anyone.”
Before, Sopko and U.S. officials had fought over redaction requests. In 2015, for instance, the Pentagon requested SIGAR classify information on the performance of the Afghan security forces, allegedly requested by the Afghan government on the grounds that it tipped off the Taliban to the forces’ posture. Sopko says the request included information such as “casualty data, unit strength, training and operational deficiencies, tactical and operational readiness of Afghan military leadership, comprehensive assessments of Afghan security force headquarters leadership; and operational readiness rates down to the corps level.”
That’s exactly the kind of information one would need to know if the military was a viable force, he says. Classifying it deprived the American people of being able to measure the Afghan forces’ success or failure. Congress could still read this information, but members couldn’t publicly talk about it in detail. “The Taliban knew this information. The Afghan government knew this information,” he says. “The only people who did not know this information were the people who were paying for it: the U.S. taxpayer.”
The U.S. spent at least $84 billion to train and equip Afghanistan’s 300,000-plus troops and police, which vastly outnumbered the estimated 75,000 Taliban fighters now in control of the country. Afghan had an army of heavy weapons, attack planes, helicopters, and armored trucks. The Taliban has since taken over the entire multibillion dollar arsenal. However, this did not replace the will to fight and the survival instinct. As Afghan soldiers saw, those who surrendered to militants could live, while those who fought were sometimes brutally killed.
Americans were aware of the time when U.S. forces will withdraw from Afghanistan leaving Afghanistan’s government to come up with its own plans. However, it was generally believed that Afghan security force could withstand Taliban assaults on key population centers like Kabul for up to one year. Instead, Afghan defenses lasted a matter of weeks—a collapse so sudden and complete that many Americans were stunned when it finally did.
If more information in SIGAR’s reports on the forces had been unclassified, Sopko wonders, could it have had a larger impact on the way the conflict ended? There were no shortage of media reports documenting bad news in Afghanistan, of course, but what if the American public saw the U.S. government’s archive of facts detailing the years-long history of dysfunction, corruption and poor performance? “Maybe the war would have ended earlier,” he says. “We’ll never know, because the information was classified.”
Certain aspects of every warSopko admits that information about human intelligence sources and the methods used to obtain it must remain secret. However, an inspector general shouldn’t scrub information because it’s politically damaging.
Craig Whitlock investigated the government’s deception over the war in a 2019 Washington Post series and 2021 book, “The Afghanistan Papers,” a searing report largely based on previously classified SIGAR documents which he obtained after filing multiple public-records requests and two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. “U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” Whitlock writes.
An audience of veterans and military families watches President Joe Biden announce that all American troops will be leaving Afghanistan on August 31, 2021, at Long Beach, California.
Apu Gomes—AFP/Getty Images
Sopko was a strong-minded federal prosecutor for Ohio. He is 69. Six Cleveland Mafia mafia leaders were convicted on racketeering offenses. As a staffer for the Democratic Representative John Dingell in Michigan, and the Republican Senator Sam Nunn in Georgia, he moved to Washington.
Sopko was appointed by President Barack Obama to assume the position of SIGAR administrator, which had been created in 2008 by Congress. Sopko replaced Arnold Fields, a retired Marine general, who resigned after critical assessments of the agency’s audits. Almost immediately after his appointment, Sopko drew fire from inside Washington for being outspoken with the media and combative inside government—qualities not often found among inspectors general.
Since the beginning of the decade, his focus has been on investigating the failures in the $146 billion U.S. Afghanistan reconstruction. Next year, he’s been tasked with finding out why nearly all of it failed. “It was our largest development project in history, it was the United States’ longest war in history and we should learn some lessons about what happened,” Sopko says. “Not only to point fingers, but to learn some lessons. Because mistakes we made there, we may very well make, again, someplace else.”
America’s war in Afghanistan is over, but Sopko says oversight on what went wrong has just begun. His only hope is that his conclusions will be accepted by the government.
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