The truth about the war in Afghanistan was out there—even if told in “dense bureaucratic prose”—says the alumnus charged with oversight of the US reconstruction effort.
“Ironically, you could call me the father of the Afghanistan Papers,” says John Sopko C’74, referring to a multipart article in the Washington Post—billed as “a secret history of the war”—that ran in December.
Much of the reporting drew on material generated by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which Sopko has led since 2012. These include quarterly progress assessments produced for Congress, various audits and investigations, and a series of “Lessons Learned” reports (seven so far) that take on subjects such as building Afghan security forces, the impact of corruption, and counternarcotics—all of which are publicly available at SIGAR’s website (www.sigar.mil).
But the most explosive material in “The Afghanistan Papers” revolved around transcripts and summaries of some 400 interviews conducted by SIGAR analysts, which the Post story called “a confidential trove of government documents” showing that “senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan.” These documents, about 2,000 pages in all, were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in a process that took three years and involved two federal lawsuits.
That’s the ironic part.
The Post story strongly suggested that SIGAR dragged its feet on releasing the documents and that the agency is continuing to interfere with the public’s right to know by withholding the identities of many of those interviewed (an issue that remains before a judge). Sopko—a former law enforcement official and veteran investigator for Congressional oversight committees [“Alumni Profiles,” May|Jun 2004], who has more often been castigated as too outspoken in his current role—vigorously disputes that characterization.
“We’ve been on the forefront of transparency, on fighting over-classification, on highlighting major problems, on calling people out,” he says. “I was the first probably to ever say that I described Afghanistan in two words: hubris and mendacity.” And he also takes “some umbrage” at the suggestion that his staff would allow him to “pull back,” even if he wanted to.
In the Post story, Sopko attributed any delays in producing materials to SIGAR’s limited staff and the need for review by other agencies for potentially classified information. Where he does have a major disagreement with the newspaper is on the question of releasing the names of people—he calls them “whistleblowers”—to whom SIGAR had promised anonymity.
Given the Post’s Watergate history in particular, “it’s humorous in a way,” he says. “On the other hand, that goes at the core of what we do for a living. We’ve got to protect our sources, just like the Washington Post does.” The people who agreed to be interviewed deserve credit for being willing to talk with SIGAR analysts of their own free will, he says. “To me, they should be viewed as heroes, not as some culprits who lied to the American people.” (The Post’s position has been that “the war critics were not whistleblowers or informants, because they were not interviewed as part of an investigation.”)
While he acknowledges that “The Afghanistan Papers” did generate more attention than SIGAR’s own materials—described in the story as being written in “dense bureaucratic prose”—have managed to attract, “there’s really not a lot new, to be honest with you,” he says. “They’re eye-catching quotes, particularly when you bring them all together in an article or two. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Nor does it mean they’re always useful.” He adds that a lot of what the Post highlighted concerned matters outside SIGAR’s purview. “My job is to look at reconstruction. I don’t look at the war fighting. And I don’t look at whether we should be in Afghanistan or not.”
Sopko had left government service for a partnership at the law firm Akin Gump when “a buddy of mine in the White House” called to feel him out about heading SIGAR. Many old friends on the Hill warned him it was “a disaster,” he says, but “when the White House calls, you answer.”
By 2012, the “surge” in troop levels and reconstruction projects had recently peaked. “We had spent billions,” he says. “We spent more money in Afghanistan than we did on the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe—and a lot of it was being wasted.” SIGAR hadn’t even been established until 2008 and the previous leadership was ineffective, he says. “So, it was playing catch up and trying to convince the Congress that there was somebody watching out for the money on behalf of the administration.”
In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January, Sopko said that SIGAR has so far published nearly 600 reports of various kinds and conducted more than 1,000 investigations leading to more than 130 convictions, resulting in more than $3 billion in savings. In a dig at the Post, he also noted that the “Lessons Learned” program “is not and never was intended to be a new version of the Pentagon Papers, or to turn snappy one-liners and quotes into headlines or sound bites” and, regarding criticism of the reports’ prose style, that “we are not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize.”
So far, uncertainty about whether people’s identities will be protected hasn’t impeded investigators’ ongoing work, he says. “But it’s always a concern we have,” and one with implications beyond SIGAR to the other independent inspectors general operating throughout the federal bureaucracy. This structure, created by the Inspector General Act of 1978, is “very unique among governments around the world,” he says. “If we can’t protect our sources, we’re never going to be able to improve the way the government works.”
Asked to highlight some key takeaways from the “Lessons Learned” program, he points first to the issue of security. “Development is less likely to work in a war fighting environment, and so that’s something you’ve got to really deal with.” The second problem has been “endemic corruption—from top to bottom, which affects the security as well as the support for the Afghan government by their people,” he says. “We really screwed that up.”
Corruption was facilitated by the fact that “we spent too much money, too fast, in too small a country, with too little oversight. And if you do that, you’re going to fail,” he adds. “Oversight has to be mission critical.” And, ideally, implemented from day one. “We had already had eight years of spending” by the time SIGAR was established. “A lot of the money had been wasted.”
The “last lesson,” he says, “goes back to the hubris and mendacity” and is directed to all three administrations (so far) that have presided over the war: tell the truth.
“Don’t oversell what you can accomplish in a place like Afghanistan. Be honest to the American people. Be honest to Congress,” he says. “When you come in and lie and basically say, ‘Hey, we can solve this in a year or two,’ and ‘we can turn this around,’ or ‘we’re turning the corner,’ and you keep turning the corner, you end up going around in circles.”