Government watchdog report details Taliban’s rapid takeover in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters last year swept through Afghanistan and seized the capital in a matter of weeks. How they were able to do so and why the Afghan military collapsed so quickly has been debated ever since. A government watchdog on Wednesday released the first U.S. report on what happened. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last summer, Taliban fighters swept through Afghanistan and seized the capital in a matter of weeks.

    How they were able to do so and why the Afghan military collapsed so quickly has been debated ever since. Today, an inspector general released the first U.S. government report on what happened. And it catalogues years of mistakes.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Over 20 years, the U.S. spent $90 billion training Afghan security forces and gave them 600,000 weapons. And yet it took the Taliban only 30 days last summer to capture all 34 provinces.

    The U.S. suffered what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called a strategic defeat. Why? The first U.S. government report to answer that question is from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, who joins me now.

    Welcome back to…

    John Sopko, Special Spector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction: Pleasure to be here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You write — quote — "The single most important factor was the U.S. decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020 and President Biden's public address announcing the withdrawal.

    Why?

  • John Sopko:

    Well, because it was a devastating impact on the morale of the average soldier. They felt abandoned by the U.S. and the allies, but basically the U.S. They were left alone, they felt.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But morale had been low before that, right? There were many Afghan soldiers who complained that they were fighting for what was seen as a corrupt government. And the Taliban were fighting to evict foreign forces, right?

  • John Sopko:

    It had been.

    I mean, this is not to say that the Afghans didn't have problems before that treaty and the decision made by the Biden administration. But what really happened was they felt, essentially, that the Taliban had cut a deal with our government, and, to some extent, maybe their own government, and they were left in the lurch.

    And the average Afghan soldier was being told by his leadership out in the provinces that deals had been cut.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Part of the agreements were withdrawing contractors specifically.

    And you quote a former U.S. commander telling you that pulling contractors out was like pulling all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expecting it to stay up. Why were the Afghans still so dependent on contractors?

  • John Sopko:

    Because we had given them equipment, highly sophisticated American equipment, and they weren't capable of maintaining that equipment by themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that is indicative of a larger problem, a long-term problem, of what's been called mirror imaging, creating the Afghan forces in the guise of U.S. forces, not only the weapons they use, but even the structure of the army itself.

    How fatal, do you think, was that decision?

  • John Sopko:

    That was a fatal flaw. That was something that had been identified, particularly in the area of logistics. The logistics were horrible.

    And although we gave them a lot of weapons, a lot of bullets, a lot of material, if there's no way to get it to the troops, then the troops will die.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Was there an alternative? Could the U.S. have built an Afghan military less mirror-imaged?

  • John Sopko:

    It could have happened.

    Or we could have spent more time building the capability. And that was another problem we have identified in the report, is that we had a short turnaround on our personnel being there, a short turnaround on our plans and strategy.

    We didn't have a 20-year strategy in Afghanistan. We had basically 10 two-year strategies, you may want to say. And we were always rushing to get out. And every administration wanted to get out. And the strategy was based on getting out in the next two years.

    And what happens is, you ignore things like developing the operations and the maintenance and all those other things that keeps an army functioning.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned the Afghan government.

    Let's talk about some of their errors that you identify. You say that Ashraf Ghani appointed loyalists and also failed to create a national security plan. How important were those mistakes?

  • John Sopko:

    Appointing loyalists, he replaced Western-trained, educated and identified and recruited.

    I mean, we had identified these commanders and had been appointed, but he got rid of them because he didn't trust him. Toward the end, he became, like one of the Afghan senior generals told us, paranoid. He was afraid of a coup. So he eliminated them and replaced them with loyalists who were incompetent.

    Toward the end, he was replacing him with former Soviet era generals who hadn't seen service for 20 years. And they were totally incompetent.

    And we say in the report, Ghani and his close circle of friends never thought the U.S. government was going to pull the trigger and leave. And so they never really planned for it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the factors that you and I have spoken about over the years that contributed to what happened at the end of this war is civilian deaths, special operations raids especially.

    Do you think that that helped contribute to the long-term failure of the U.S. effort?

  • John Sopko:

    Oh, I think so. And I'm not the only one.

    I think some of the senior military officials we have talked to over the years have said, every time we did a bombing raid, and we killed the wrong people, we just created 10 more Taliban. And that was happening all over the country. And it really got worse after the U.S. stopped their air missions, and it was basically Afghans doing it.

    The Afghans weren't as skilled, and they were sloppy, and they killed a lot of innocent Afghan men, women and children, and just drove the rest of the people, their family members, their survivors into the Taliban's grasp.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In six weeks, it will have been 10 years since you started this job.

    You have written scores of reports, reports that you and your staff have argued have been largely ignored by some senior military leaders. Do you fear the U.S. is destined to make the same mistakes again?

  • John Sopko:

    I hate to say it. Yes.

    The senior leaders will tell you, we're never going to do it again. Well, that's exactly what we said after Vietnam. We're never going to do it again. But we did. We did it in Iraq. We did it in Afghanistan.

    We're starting to do it in countries in Africa. It's a slippery slope when you start sending in U.S. military, U.S. military equipment, start trying to recreate a country's military or government in our image. And, all of a sudden, we're going to find ourselves in the same thing.

    I'm not saying we don't need to send troops into certain areas around the world. But let's think about what we're doing first. Let's learn some lessons. We have a 20-year-long petri dish. And we can see what happens when we don't listen to lessons from the past.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    John Sopko, thank you very much.

  • John Sopko:

    Pleasure. Pleasure.

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