Pentagon watchdog warns of 'existential crisis' and criticizes US 'hubris' in Afghanistan
By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
(CNN) -- A Pentagon watchdog report on Afghanistan warns that the country's government could face an "existential crisis" and offered a highly critical assessment of the US's strategy and conduct throughout the nearly 20-year war, just weeks before the withdrawal of American troops is due to be completed.
John Sopko, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told reporters Thursday there are two words to describe the US effort in Afghanistan. "One is this hubris that we can somehow take a country that was desolate in 2001 and turn it into a little Norway." The other, mendacity: "we over exaggerated, our generals did, our ambassadors did." He noted countless officials over the years spoke about "just turning the corner" in the fight against the Taliban. "Well we turned the corner so much, we did 360 degrees."
The report warns that Afghan National Defense and Security Forces "appeared surprised and unready and is now on its back foot" against the Taliban as the US withdraws, though Sopko told reporters he believes "the last act" hasn't been played and the government still has time to make improvements and try to survive.
The Pentagon has said about 95% of US troops have left and the Taliban have rapidly expanded their presence to large swaths of country. The speed at which Afghan security forces have lost control to the Taliban has shocked many and led to concerns that the capital, Kabul, could be next to fall. All foreign forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by August 31.
Talking to reporters, Sopko continued his criticism of US policy and said there had been a failure to help fashion an Afghan military force with the basic pay, logistics, medical care and other elements that made local troops feel risking their lives was worth it. Sopko repeatedly noted that fuel supplies are not under proper government control and suggested that as much as half may have been stolen, a huge obstacle that has reduced military capability.
Afghan UH-60 helicopters had a 77% readiness rate in April and May, that then plummeted for several reasons to 39% in June. The readiness rate for the AC 208 light aircraft declined to 63% in June after being at 93% in April and May. This underscores worries that Afghan air forces simply won't be able to function without maintenance contractors on site.
The report was published a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the Taliban's advances in Afghanistan as "deeply troubling" and followed a meeting between China's foreign minister and senior members of the Taliban in northern China.
US intelligence services, military commanders and members of Congress have all warned that the Afghan government won't be able to stand up to the Taliban without the backing of American firepower.
Early this month President Joe Biden delivered a vehement defense of his decision to withdraw US troops, insisting no amount of sustained American presence there could resolve the country's intractable problems.
Sopko has long been critical of many of the US efforts in Afghanistan. But with the troop withdrawal almost complete he advocated for a hard look at the history of US military conflicts. "Don't believe what you're told by the generals or the ambassadors or people in administration saying we're never going to do this again," he said. "That's exactly what we said after Vietnam: We're never going to do this again. Lo and behold, we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again."
Sopko noted that a new report will be published in the new few weeks on lessons the US should have learned from Afghanistan, in part based on new interviews with officials who served.
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