Sopko stressed the importance of learning lessons from Afghanistan, lest the United States repeat the same mistakes again.
“The United States is really not prepared for large reconstruction programs like this in a conflict zone,” he said. “Every time we do it, we do it poorly.”
Leaders resolve again and again not to do it, but the U.S. has engaged in three major reconstruction efforts in the last 50 years in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, he noted. The United States would be better off accepting that it will likely find itself engaged in something similar in another challenging part of the world and prepare itself for that mission than simply vowing to never do it again, he said.
Sopko said that he was initially surprised by the speed of the collapse of the Afghan Security Forces, but when he and his staff reflected on it, it seemed inevitable.
Corruption was rampant in the Afghan military, he said. One American commander once told Sopko that 50 percent of the fuel provided by the United States was stolen, he said.
“We spent too much money, too fast, in too small a country, with no oversight,” he said. “Every Afghan you talk to says it was the corruption in the military that led to the military’s downfall.”
And once the U.S. set a departure date, senior Afghan military officials began stealing even more, he said.
Many Afghan soldiers hadn’t been paid in five or six months, and the government didn’t feed them or provide them with bullets, he said. They had very little close air support because there was little or no fuel for the aircraft.
When the Taliban arrived, they often offered government troops a choice: to fight and be killed, or take a bus ticket back home, Sopko said.