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World

Afghanistan Inspector General On The State Of The War

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The war in Afghanistan - nearly 18 years, more than 2,400 American lives - not to mention the Afghans and NATO forces who have died in that war - and $132 billion in U.S. aid for reconstruction. Where has all that money gone? John Sopko has been the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction since 2012. He delivered his latest report yesterday, ahead of a potential peace agreement in Afghanistan with the Taliban. And I asked Sopko, what has all that money bought?

JOHN SOPKO: That money has succeeded in helping in building schools and roads, helping on rule of law, providing the salaries to many police and military and school teachers. But unfortunately, a lot has been wasted.

MARTIN: Let's talk about what those reconstruction projects mean in the context of a potential peace deal with the Taliban because that is what is in the offing right now. Do you think a peace with the Taliban - bringing them in from the cold - is that a good thing or a bad thing for all of those investments?

SOPKO: Well, we support the peace process. A fair and sustainable peace is what's needed. The Afghans want that. We want that - the coalition. I think the neighbors want it. But are there some risks from that peace? And there are. And that's what our report talks about. It raises some of the risks from that. And again, this doesn't mean don't pursue peace. Again, we are strong supporters of a fair and sustainable peace. And those are the two key words. It's got to be sustainable.

MARTIN: But nothing in Afghanistan's history would point to any kind of lasting peace.

SOPKO: Well, many experts have said that. It's been a very tough place to have peace. So you're going to have to have a security force. So we're going to have to keep doing that.

MARTIN: So the U.S. is going to have to keep doing it?

SOPKO: Well, I don't know if the U.S. has to do it. What we're hoping for is we'll have a smaller role. But somebody has to pay for it. The economy there is really poor. They can't pay for the military they have. They can't pay for the government they have.

The other thing you have to consider is if there is peace - and again, we hope there is - you're going to have 60-some-thousand Taliban who are heavily-armed, trained killers, to some extent. That's what they've been doing. They're fighters. What do you do with them? They have to be reintegrated. That's a very difficult thing, and it doesn't always work. So that's another risk. We're not saying, don't do peace. We're not saying, don't do reintegration, excuse me. What we're saying is, think about the day after.

MARTIN: I hear you that part of a lasting peace will mean finding employment, finding something else for former Taliban to build a life around. But Afghanistan's economy, as you just noted, can't even provide that livelihood for Afghans who were not fighting, who were not members of the Taliban. I mean, where has the money gone to try to build up alternatives to opium? I mean, there was so much of a focus on at least curbing the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan. A lot of money was put into other parts of the agricultural industry. Did any of that pay off?

SOPKO: Not much of it. You also have to realize the Taliban were intimately involved with the opium trade. So if there is a peace negotiation, what happens then? Now, we do know at one point in time, when the Taliban ran Afghanistan, they stopped all opium production. Now, we don't know if that was just a temporary desire. But that's another problem we have to deal with. What do you do with the Taliban who are involved in the opium trade now?

MARTIN: There is a growing segment of the American population that is disenchanted with America's investment and the idea of nation building. You've got Democratic presidential hopefuls sounding a little bit like Donald Trump on that score, saying, it's time to get out.

You're kind of the nation-building guy. Like, as far as this endeavor, this particular war and conflict in Afghanistan, this was your responsibility to oversee the money that went to that. Can you look back and say, this is an example of how nation building works?

SOPKO: Well, let me qualify in two ways. I don't do policy. I do the process. There was a policy decision made by Congress and three presidents about support in Afghanistan. Now, you can call it nation building.

MARTIN: But I take your point. You're not the person who made the decision. You're the person who holds the process accountable.

SOPKO: Sure. And the question you asked - which is the fair question to an inspector general - is how come it didn't work, whatever we call it? And two words sort of qualify what happened in Afghanistan - hubris and mendacity. We oversold our capability. That's the hubris, that we could somehow turn Afghanistan into a little America. And that's a hubris that I think - maybe it's an American cultural problem. But we oversold it. And that's the mendacity. We lied to Congress and the American people that everything was working well. You know, the troops will be home by November. Remember that old line? I mean, we're winning the war. We're building a little Norway in Helmand Province. We never were.

Just be honest with the American people and say, this is difficult. There's a new Congress - 40, 50 new members - who maybe never focused on Afghanistan because it wasn't a big issue in the last election. But it's a big issue now where we got 2,400 Americans died there. We've lost, I think, four since the beginning of this year. It's an issue that Congress needs to focus on, the administration needs to focus on.

MARTIN: We're still at war.

SOPKO: We're still at war. And there are people who want to kill Americans, people who want to see us fail. And it's not just Afghans. There are other people who want to see us fail there. So we need to plan, and don't expect a peace dividend immediately.

I think that's one of the things we're trying to say. Let's be honest again. You're not going to get a check in the mail or a coupon from your bond with a peace dividend. Afghanistan cannot support itself unless we continue helping them. That's what we're warning in this thing.

MARTIN: John Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SOPKO: It is always a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.