In recent days, much has been said about Afghanistan. I spoke about it on the floor on September 15th. Today, I will look at it from a different angle – through the inspector general lens.
The sudden collapse of the Afghan government and army drew me right back to years of oversight work and audits conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Mr. John Sopko.
SIGAR’s reports pulled no punches. Report-after-report exposed and documented grim allegations of weak security, “systemic” corruption and waste. Those core problems were brushed aside and allowed to eat away at the foundation of our commitment. An inability to solve them prompted SIGAR to send warning signals. Our mission in Afghanistan was failing.
To the detriment of U.S. foreign policy and our national security, most of SIGAR’s advice fell on deaf ears. SIGAR was like a lone wolf howling in the wilderness.
As the final scene of the Afghanistan tragedy unfolded at Kabul airport, President Biden cut and ran. He assigned blame squarely on Afghanistan’s shoulders. But that’s not the whole truth. Just pick up any SIGAR report. It’s plain to see. We were the chief architect and financer for a lion’s share of the structure that collapsed.
If we are to learn from this experience, we need to begin by looking in the mirror.
SIGAR’s “Lessons Learned” reports clearly indicate that security against the Taliban threat was a top priority. According to SIGAR, security was “never” achieved. Based on repeated assessments of the army’s readiness, SIGAR concluded the Afghan army lacked the capability to independently defend the country against internal and external threats. Without security, nation building was a non-starter. When coupled with “systemic corruption,” which SIGAR characterized as an “existential threat … that eroded army readiness,” prospects for survival of the government and army were dim.
Against advice I’ve given previous administrations, the president announced the date certain for pulling out the U.S. military. Within days, the Taliban eliminated the Afghan army with hardly a fight. The Taliban then seized U.S. military assets. The Biden administration left Americans and Afghan allies behind enemy lines. Adding tragedy to the deeply flawed military exit, a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians.
There’s clear and present urgency for accountability.
Afghanistan’s collapse underscores the merits of SIGAR’s work. It was created to watchdog the huge sums of money pouring into Afghan coffers. Mr. Sopko did his job well. He issued aggressive, hard-hitting reports, documenting egregious waste and blatant corruption on both sides – ours and theirs. Large sums of money simply disappeared.
In a recent report, SIGAR served up a classic case of waste and corruption on a silver platter. It is symptomatic of the rot that derailed our efforts in Afghanistan. It involved the purchase of 20 refurbished Italian G222 medium-lift aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. They added $549 million to the taxpayer tab. These aircraft were needed but unsupportable and inoperable. The squandering on this project was matched by others exposed by SIGAR, like the 64,000 square foot “surge” command center that was built for $34 million but never needed and never occupied. The G222 was just another notch in Uncle Sam’s belt of wasteful spending. Those planes were thrown on the junk heap because of crooked mismanagement – on our side.
The Air Force general, who led the program while on active duty and then as vice president for the company selling the Italian aircraft, allegedly violated criminal conflict-of-interest statutes. SIGAR wanted to pursue criminal charges but the Department of Justice refused to prosecute. It turned a blind eye to the general’s alleged misconduct. Let that sink in. A half-billion taxpayer dollars went up in smoke and no one was held to account. At a minimum, this reckless spending demanded disciplinary action.
With little or no accountability, it was easy for crooks to line their pockets with schemes like the G222 aircraft. SIGAR nailed quite a few. Investigations resulted in 160 criminal convictions. Corruption was found on both sides. The convicted included 42 Afghans, 58 U.S. military personnel, 49 U.S. contractors, and 11 U.S. government personnel and citizens. Some money was recovered. However, in such a “target-rich” environment, I suspect SIGAR’s investigators barely scratched the surface.
Unfortunately, while SIGAR’s finger was stuck in the dike, Uncle Sam kept the money spigot wide open. Some estimate that over two trillion dollars flowed through that pipe to a government and army known by SIGAR to be riddled with “systemic corruption.” We tolerated it and kept the money flowing.
What happened in Afghanistan boils down to the fundamental principle of good government. Oversight is crucial to accountability.
SIGAR has more work to do.
SIGAR will need to provide a full accounting for all the captured and abandoned weapons and equipment. It will need to track down unexpended dollars in the pipeline, estimated at $6.5 billion or more, so those tax dollars can be returned to the Treasury or reallocated for other purposes. It will need to investigate allegations that high officials fled with hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in cash. If true, this would be more proof of “systemic” corruption that was the country’s undoing. Stolen tax dollars should be recovered.
The House defense authorization bill already instructs SIGAR to address these and other issues. I call on the Senate Armed Services Committee to adopt those same measures and authorize funding needed to finish the job.
Congress needs to know why SIGAR’s alarm bells on poor security, corruption and waste were largely ignored. They were unmistakable indicators of impending collapse. Once the decision was made to pull-out U.S. troops in early 2020, preparations for evacuation were mandatory. So why did President Biden make such a panicked and haphazard exit? Did no one see the warning signs? Did the military fail to develop an orderly exit strategy and evacuation plan as alleged by Secretary Blinken? If true, who is responsible for that blunder?
A congressional autopsy might help us avoid the same mistakes in the future. It might help us put forward a better foot to strengthen strategic alliances. As painful as it may be, we must never give up trying to learn from past mistakes. We still face threats from terrorist groups with the same ideology as the 911 attackers. We still have troops in many countries combatting terrorism in partnership with local forces. We can’t afford to sweep mistakes under the rug and just move on and forget about it. Without some soul-searching, America risks further humiliations like we have just witnessed, which will only embolden would-be adversaries.