WASHINGTON -- American taxpayers have spent $62.5 billion on Afghanistan's military and police forces since the U.S. invaded that country in 2001. It could all go to waste -- or, worse, to extremists -- if the Afghan and U.S. governments don't increase their vigilance, according to the top watchdog for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
"The evidence strongly suggests that Afghanistan lacks the capacity -- financial, technical, managerial or otherwise -- to maintain, support and execute much of what has been built or established during more than 13 years of international assistance," said John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, in an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday.
Sopko described himself as "more optimistic" about the situation in Afghanistan than he has been since he became inspector general three years ago. He pointed to innovations by the U.S. military and the fact that the new Afghan government has proved to be less antagonistic to Washington -- and to its important neighbor, Pakistan -- than its predecessor was.
But he underscored that he has serious doubts about the Afghan army, which is central to President Barack Obama's plan to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan by 2016. The Afghan army is the chief line of defense in that country against the resurgent Taliban and a deadly Islamic State offshoot.
“Developing a capable [Afghan National Defense and Security Force] is essential to the success of the reconstruction effort and to the Afghan government’s prospects in any peace talks [with Taliban militants]," Sopko said. "Considering the effect a lack of security has on good governance, rule of law, and economic and social development, it may be the most important issue." (The Afghan National Defense and Security Force is the umbrella term for the country's army and police.)
Sopko's comments come half a year after the U.S. and its NATO partners in Afghanistan formally ended their combat mission and turned over responsibility for security to the Afghan forces. The coalition allies then began a smaller support program. In late March, after consultations with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Obama announced that he would slow down the withdrawal of remaining U.S. troops in 2015 but would stick to his plan of limiting the U.S. presence to an embassy and a small Kabul-based force after 2016.
The U.S. currently has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan who are supposed to be training the local security forces and seeking out what remains of al-Qaeda elements in the country. But The New York Times revealed last November that the president had quietly authorized U.S. forces to engage in combat against the Taliban if the militants directly threatened Americans or other coalition forces. Obama also signed off on the use of U.S. air power to support Afghan troops, according to the Times.
Sopko said Wednesday that he is not confident about the current capabilities of the Afghan troops, which face what experts describe as a Taliban growing increasingly confident as the U.S.-led coalition departs.
He added that it is difficult to assess the capacity of the Afghan forces because the U.S.-led coalition has changed its measurement methods numerous times. Moreover, last year the new NATO support mission said it would be classifying the executive summary of its Afghan force assessments, previously provided to the inspector general. Sopko blasted the move, as did such lawmakers as Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an advocate for broader accountability on U.S. money spent abroad.
Sopko said Wednesday that he had received a new unclassified assessment in March, but that he was "skeptical" about its findings "after 10 years of assessments where [Afghan security forces] have yo-yoed with every new system." The Afghan army did not score the highest possible points on any measure defined in the new assessment, Sopko added.
The inspector general noted that the oft-cited 352,000-person count for the Afghan military and police is simply a still-unmet target. And he suggested there's only a small chance that the Afghan government in its current condition will be able to improve or even pay for its security forces.
Sopko's remarks came the same day as two deadly attacks by militants in Afghanistan. The first targeted Islamic scholars, while the second was at a guesthouse frequented by foreigners.
Shamila Chaudhary, who served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council in 2010-11, told The Huffington Post that Sopko's views on the weakness of Afghan security forces are just a more pointed version of the consensus among U.S. government officials, particularly in the military, and outside analysts.
"They've known this for quite a long time," Chaudhary said. "The problem is that the politics of the [withdrawal] don’t allow for the U.S. to commit to the security forces financially for an indefinite period of time. ... It's a clash of political culture and what needs to happen on the ground."
Chaudhary, who is now a senior adviser to the dean at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced and International Studies, added that Obama's plan to slow down U.S. troop withdrawal is unlikely to change Afghanistan's security situation much.
"We set up ourselves for the problem that we're facing today: What do you do with all these folks?" she said. "The Afghan government is not financially in a position to take ownership of this issue."
Yet Afghanistan will remain a core U.S. interest for counterterrorism purposes, she said, particularly given the Islamic State's expansion there and the potential that Afghanistan could become a battleground for broader Shiite-Sunni tensions around the Muslim world.
"A strong, secure and self-sustaining Afghanistan is important for stability in the region, the well-being of 30 million Afghans, and ultimately the security of the United States," Sopko said Wednesday. Just minutes earlier, he had compared a potential U.S. loss in Afghanistan to the scarring defeat of U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1975.
"I am often the bringer of bad news," the inspector general said. "But that is my job description: to look for waste, fraud and abuse and determine what is working and what is not, and what could be improved."
He is "cautiously optimistic about a brighter future for Afghanistan."