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New Watchdog Report Paints Grim Picture Of America's War In Afghanistan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to take a closer look at one of President Trump's foreign policy challenges - the involvement of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. A new report sent to Congress yesterday by a government watchdog paints a grim picture of the situation. It came out just after twin bombings in Kabul this weekend that killed dozens of people and two months after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said, quote, "momentum is going to favor the Afghan forces." John Sopko is special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. They put out this new report. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

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

CORNISH: So looking at your report, the conclusion is the opposite of what we're hearing from General Dunford, right? You say that the Afghan army and police together have 36,000 fewer personnel than they did last year. And that it's the result of desertions and casualties. What is that a signal of, and why is that a concern to you?

SOPKO: Well, I think the concern is that they can't sustain the fight. The Afghans are doing the bulk of the fight now. And if casualties go up, if desertions go up, then that's a problem on how they can sustain it.

CORNISH: We should say that the Afghan government, in reply to your report, they say that they have enough forces and that morale is high. What's your response to that?

SOPKO: I don't have any data on the morale. There's a lot of background information that we don't have or because it's classified we can't discuss, but I hope the morale is good. I mean, some of the units are excellent, but there is this overall trend, which causes us some concern.

CORNISH: I ask because is there a world where this is a smaller but more committed and competent force?

SOPKO: In some areas, it is. Their air force is smaller and very competent. It's improved dramatically. Their special forces units are growing. So those are positive points to focus on.

CORNISH: At the same time, you're seeing an increase in Taliban control over the population. What do you think is going on there?

SOPKO: Overall, it's still a bit of a stalemate, and I think what's going on is we do have a new strategy. It was announced by the president. But it hasn't fully taken effect. And we have to give it time to take effect. It's in the early stages of this new strategy, and part of that is efforts to get Pakistan to cooperate, deploying security brigades to try to get to training at the lower level, increasing a number of special forces, Afghan special forces.

CORNISH: John Sopko, we've spoken to you a lot over the years, and you sound borderline optimistic in this conversation.

SOPKO: Well, I - maybe I'm just an optimistic person because what else is the alternative? But I'm cautiously optimistic because I go to Afghanistan on a regular basis, and I get an opportunity to meet people. I was sitting down with the president of Afghanistan discussing his anti-corruption strategy. And around that room with President Ghani were a number of his top advisers. And these are young, bright, exuberant patriots, Afghan patriots, who are trying to do their best. And I kind of view them as sort of the canary in the coal mine. When the youth of Afghanistan no longer supports our efforts and the Afghan government's efforts, then I think we've got a problem. Now, at same time, I'm worried the insurgents hate the media because a free press is the future of Afghanistan. The insurgents hate a free election. And so the last two major attacks have been on those two institutions. But hopefully, if we keep supporting the Afghan government with a free election and a free and independent press, I'm more optimistic.

CORNISH: John Sopko, thank you for speaking with us.

SOPKO: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

CORNISH: John Sopko is special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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