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U.S. Military Auditor Suggests The Afghan War Is Still At A Stalemate

Jan 30, 2018
Originally published on January 30, 2018 7:38 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much progress is the United States making in the war in Afghanistan? It could be hard to tell. The Pentagon is not releasing some basic facts about the war, like the number of Afghans trained for military service or the number of Afghans killed in combat. And that is a concern for our next guest. John Sopko is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and he's come by our studios.

Good morning, sir.

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

INSKEEP: Why does it matter that we can't get basic facts?

SOPKO: Well, it's hard to make determination of how good a job we're doing because if the Afghan military's not fighting that well, and there are not that many of them, we can't determine fraud, waste and abuse in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that even you are having trouble getting information out of the Pentagon?

SOPKO: We're having trouble getting information, although we can get classified information. It's just that we cannot share it with the American people who ultimately are paying for the Afghan military, the Afghan police, their salaries, weapons, et cetera.

INSKEEP: But I can see the argument from the Pentagon's point of view here. Why should we be putting out in public any information at all? The enemy gets it.

SOPKO: Well, I think the enemy knows what districts they control. The enemy knows what the situation is. The Afghan military knows what the situation is. The only people who don't know what's going on are the people who are paying for it, and that's the American taxpayer.

INSKEEP: Now, there are some numbers, as I understand it, that are out there. We know the number of airstrikes - U.S. airstrikes - is up - right? - and that the number of U.S. troops has also gone up.

SOPKO: That's correct. That's correct.

INSKEEP: ...Which is part of a tweak to the strategy by the Trump administration. Are you able to gather enough information to say in public whether it seems like the strategy's working?

SOPKO: I think it's too early to tell, and I don't think anybody expected there'd be a turnaround so quickly. But again, you know, four times a year, I'm supposed to report on the status of what is going on and how good a job we're doing. We need indicators of that such as you mentioned - the number of Afghans we're paying their salaries for, how close that is to their goal, the attrition, the number of districts. And that's the information we can no longer provide the American people.

INSKEEP: Now, there is one number that we now know, and you can find it at npr.org. Our colleague Merrit Kennedy reports that NPR did request and obtain a number - the number of districts in Afghanistan that the government controls. And we've got a chart here showing that number's been going down steadily. A couple of years ago, the government controlled 72 percent of districts, and it's gone down to 56 percent of districts. So it's only a little more than half of the country is firmly under the control of the government. When you return to Afghanistan, as I know you do several times a year, do you feel like you're in the middle of a winning effort?

SOPKO: No. I must say that. I've been doing this now for almost six years, and it's a stalemate at best. So I don't have that feeling. And I think a lot of Afghans don't have that feeling. And what - when you needlessly conceal information from people, I think people are concerned and get suspicious that maybe it's worse than we are being told. And I can't comment, obviously, because it's classified. But that is the problem when you overclassify and needlessly classify information. It leads to suspicion.

Now, just so the public knows, the information that's being withheld the last three months is information that we have reported on, sometimes going back to 10 years. So for 10 years, this information was OK to tell the American people, the American taxpayer. But for some reason, the last two quarters - the last three months - we have been unable to report it to the American people.

INSKEEP: And has the Pentagon given you any specific explanation?

SOPKO: No explanation at all.

INSKEEP: Mr. Sopko, thanks very much for coming by. I really appreciate it.

SOPKO: It is a pleasure.

INSKEEP: John Sopko is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.