What happened to the weapons, fuel, drones, planes, and other resources the United States provided to the now-defunct Afghanistan government? What happened to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police officers who abandoned their posts? What happened to the Afghan women and girls, and the others who supported the failed nation-building project?
Those are just a few of the questions that Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko intends to investigate before his office closes in about a year, he said on Sept. 14.
Sopko and his SIGAR agency are the authors of what has been dubbed the “Afghanistan Papers”—a previously secret history of the war, akin to what the Pentagon Papers were for the Vietnam War. His work revealed in December 2019 that U.S. officials had falsely told the public about alleged progress in Afghanistan for years while acknowledging in private that the nation-building efforts were failing miserably.
“We have a number of indictments and investigations and audits that we’re finishing up,” Sopko told POGO. “But then there’s other questions we think need to be answered.”
Sopko said that along with the questions mentioned above—“and many more”—he also intends to investigate the future of the Afghan narcotics trade. His 2018 report states that illicit narcotics account for 60 percent of the Taliban’s annual revenue.
“I directed my staff today to investigate what has happened to the narcotics trade since then, and what can we predict is going to happen?” he said. “We spent billions on fighting narcotics, and I think the American people would like to know about that.”
Sopko doesn’t have much time to find the answers to his questions. SIGAR is set to expire along with the Afghanistan reconstruction project, and the inspector general said he thinks he has about a year left to complete the task.
During the wide-ranging interview with POGO, Sopko also spoke about why he thought the Afghanistan reconstruction project was such a dismal failure.
He said U.S. officials were overly optimistic because that’s the way they could advance their careers—“people who made their career on happy talk,” he described it. The special inspector general also said the U.S. government demanded signs of progress on too short of a timeline.
To illustrate his point, Sopko spoke about what he called perhaps the “dumbest” project throughout the 20-year war.
“They brought in sexy white Italian goats to breed with the Afghan goats and improve the wool production. … We talked to the woman who they bought the goats from, who was tearing out her hair over how stupid it was—because they wanted to show success in a year or two,” Sopko said.
“She said, ‘This takes 10 to 20 years to do this!’”
All the Italian goats eventually died, according to Sopko.
“You could not make up some of the programs we had over there,” he said.
POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian asked Sopko why his work has had such an impact on discourse when so many other inspector generals have been relatively ineffective.
“Many IGs are acting under a conflict of interest because the administration dangles an appointment in front of their face, so they kind of lose some of their ardor for oversight,” Sopko said. “And we’ve had too many IGs who are fat, dumb, and happy.”
Sopko didn’t just focus his ire on U.S. security officials or his fellow IGs; he also criticized The Washington Post for trying to ascertain the identities of the Afghans he interviewed for his various reports.
“The Washington Post sued us for not divulging their identities. They said, ‘You have to tell us who your whistleblowers are,’” he said. “Isn’t that ironic? This is the same Washington Post that for 30-some years defended someone’s name and never revealed it. I think the name was ‘Deep Throat’ or something like that.
“You have to defend whistleblowers. Anyone in this town should know that. Especially reporters.”