The following is a transcript of a report that aired on Full Measure in 2018. Watch the video by clicking the link below.
Today, an important progress report on Afghanistan where we're fighting the longest war in American history. Today's 16-year olds weren't even born when we invaded the country for shielding 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Our longest war has also gobbled up record U.S. tax dollars, which is why we were so surprised to learn how bad things still are today in Afghanistan and what we've gotten for the money.
On October 7, 2001, the U.S. launched operation Enduring Freedom to disrupt the terrorist group al Qaeda, which was operating freely under Afghanistan’s Islamic fundamentalist leadership. Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban government.
John Sopko: We've been there for 16 years and our mission is to originally was to kick the terrorists out who attacked the United States and then to help create a government that would be supported by their people that could keep the terrorists away from attacking us.
Sharyl: How much money have we spent doing that so far?
John Sopko: For reconstruction alone it’s about $120 billion dollars.
Inspector General John Sopko, an Obama appointee, watches over the spending of all that money.
Sharyl: What would you say is our biggest accomplishment there?
John Sopko: We have created, a working government, working military, health care is has improved for the average Afghan, education has improved for the average Afghan-- but at great cost.
Sharyl: Is it oversimplification to say that we have helped develop a government that is friendly with us but they are still fighting the people we consider terrorists the Taliban and those clashes are going on daily?
John Sopko: Absolutely.
More than 16 years after they were ousted from power, Taliban fighters still wage a stubborn insurgency marked by daily assaults, suicide attacks, and ambushes against US forces. Sopko says, Afghanistan remains so unstable today, that he and other watchdogs can’t even get around the country to oversee spending on projects.
John Sopko: So every day there's another attack. So the security situation is very bad.
The most recent annual figures shatter known records: In one year alone, more than 11-thousand Afghan citizens -- killed in clashes with the Taliban. The number of security incidents -- its highest since tracking began. More than 660-thousand people fled their home, up 40% over the year before.
Sharyl: Is there a way to explain why the security situation could be so bad after we've tried so hard to help?
John Sopko: Well, part of it is that we spent too much money too fast and we didn't hold the Afghans accountable either. So they had officials in their government particularly in their military who were stealing the U.S. funds. I mean there are cases of where they were actually stealing the fuel that we were buying for them, stealing the weapons, selling it to the Taliban.
Sopko has documented billions of dollars in boondoggles in a country that’s legendary for its corruption. Salaries paid to so-called “ghost soldiers” who don’t exist. Loans provided to hotel projects and apartments that were never built. A fleet of planes bought, never used, and quickly scrapped after Sopko began an inquiry.
Sharyl: Where are the failures that lead to so much waste and fraud?
John Sopko: People came in there for six months or a year, spent money like drunken sailors and nobody was ever held accountable. We spent too much money too fast and too small a country with too little oversight. And that's one reason why we lost our money.
Sharyl: What what types of players have benefited if not the U.S. taxpayers?
John Sopko: Corrupt Afghan contractors, officials, corrupt U.S. officials and contractors, foreigners from other countries who have gotten on the gravy train and have not been held accountable.
And now, Sopko faces a new obstacle: the U.S. military recently classified much of the information he says he needs to do his job—and evaluate how our tax money is being spent.
John Sopko: Basically everything that the U.S. taxpayer would need to know to make a determination of how well his money's being spent. And that's that's very upsetting.
We asked him to show us some examples.
John Sopko: Some of the information they've classified, like I said, the Afghan National Security Forces casualties. We've been reporting that since 2009 but now it's classified. The proportion of actual troops in Afghanistan, Afghan troops, in relationship to their stated goals of how many troops they're going to have-- that's now classified. The proportion of their assigned strength, authorized training for the police-- that's now classified. And you just go down the list. We're paying for the Afghan police their salaries. We're paying for the Afghan military salaries. We can't report on how many soldiers actually show up?
Sharyl: What could they be trying to keep from the American public?
John Sopko: Well, look Sharyl, you and I've been in Washington long enough. We know the government never classifies good news. The bottom line is the Taliban and the insurgents know what's going on. The American military knows what's going on. The Afghan government knows what's going on. The only people who don't know what's going on in Afghanistan are the people who are paying for it.
Sharyl: Who's decided to classify this?
John Sopko: So we're going to find out about that but we still don't have the actual classifier named. That's interesting because the official policy is that if something is classified you got to have a name or an issue of who classified it.
Sharyl: Knowing what you know now if you could go back to the very beginning, 2002, what would you recommend we had done differently on the front end?
John Sopko: To have a more complete strategy that identifies who are the corrupt elements in the government. Which tribe, which group you have to avoid. We got into bed with a lot of bad people and now we can't get out. And this is the biggest point: you have to have people accountable. I have spoken to so many contracting officers U.S. contracting officers who have told me they get it an annual performance ratings not based on whether any of the contracts are good or not on just on how much taxpayer dollars they put on contract. If that's the way you reward our contracting officers are we surprised that money's being wasted? We did a very poor job of spending the money in protecting the taxpayer dollars. We have wasted billions of dollars in Afghanistan, in a nutshell.
The Defense Department did not respond to our questions about why so much information about the situation in Afghanistan was recently classified or who was responsible for the decision to classify the information.