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Mar 8, 2020

The Trump administration has made a deal with the Taliban which has been reported as "the beginning of the end" of the Afghanistan war... But is it? In this episode, an examination of Afghanistan's past helps us understand our current role in Afghanistan and by looking into the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, 2020 government funding law, and some key Congressional hearings, we get some insight into our possible future in terms of America's "forgotten war".

Executive Producer: Sarah Judd

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HR 1158: Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020

  • Page 53: Operation and Maintenance, Defense-Wide: Allows up to $225 million to be given to other countries for military operations in Afghanistan in addition to over $1 billion that can be giving to “foreign security forces or other groups or individuals” for any “Department of Defense security cooperation programs”

  • Page 55: Afghanistan Security Forces Fund: Provides over $4.1 billion to the security forces of Afghanistan that can be spent on equipment, supplies, services, training, facility and infrastructure repair, construction, and “funding”. Out of this $4.1 billion, $10 million musth be used for recruiting women into the Afghanistan National Security Forces

  • Section 9021: Funds for the Afghanistan Security Forces are allowed to be transferred to them even if they have conducted human rights abuses that are so bad that funding them would be illegal, as long as the Defense Secretary certifies that “a denial of such assistance would… significantly undermine United States national security objectives in Afghanistan” and that Afghanistan’s officials have promised to do better.

National Defense Authorization Act - 1,119 pages Signed December 20

  • Sec. 1211: Extends the authority for the Defense Department to transfer weapons and provide military services to the security forces of Afghanistan for two more years, until December 31, 2022.

  • Section 1213: Allows (but doesn’t not require) a maximum of $3 million per year to be paid to people injured or killed by US forces or our partners. The Defense Secretary gets to write the regulations determining the amounts of payments and to whom they will go.

  • Section 1216: The Secretary of State “shall seek to ensure the meaningful participation of Afghan women in the peace process in Afghanistan”

  • Section 1520: Requires $10 million of the Afghanistan Security Forces fund to be spent on women’s integration and other women’s program


Additional Resources

Sound Clip Sources

Hearing: United States Strategy in Afghanistan, United States Senate Armed Services Committee, February 11, 2020


  • Jack Keane: Chairman of the Institute for The Study of War
    • Appointed by John McCain when he was Chairman to the Congressional Committee on the National Defense Strategy
  • Dr. Colin Jackson: Professor at the United States Naval War College
    • Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia

27:30 Jack Keane: General, Scott Miller, one of our very best commanders in Afghanistan who was due to brief you next month, was working on reducing U.S. troop presence before negotiations began with the Taliban. He concluded after he took command and did his assessment that he had more troops than are required to do the mission. In other words, the troop reduction that we will undergo to 8,600 is an acceptable risk in the mind of the Commander in Charge. Second, we need to reduce the financial burden on the United States. Currently it's around $45.5 billion from a high down from a high of 110 billion in 2010 during the Afghan surge. Let's get it down. It's possible, certainly below 30 billion initially and eventually below that. Not just because of the troop reductions, but by reductions also in contractors who represent a $27 billion cost of the 45 billion. Ashraf Ghani, who I've spoken to on more than one occasion, if he forms a new government, wants to reduce the U.S. burden of $5 billion to the Afghan national security forces, he wants to provide more funds himself. He thinks he can do that, and he's had negotiations with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and a couple of others to assist in the financing.

1:51:00 Sen. Angus King (ME): We're doing counter terrorism in other countries without a military presence. Colin Jackson: Absolutely. Sen. Angus King (ME): Would that be possible in Afghanistan? Colin Jackson: Not in the same way. In other words, it's much's much easier for us geographically and politically to operate in a place like Yemen from offshore than it is for us to operate offshore into Afghanistan. It has to do with distances. It has to do with agreements with neighboring countries, that type of thing.

1:52:20 Sen. Angus King (ME): Is this a case, would you make to the American people that this is a place where we need an indefinite presence? Not at a terribly high level but as at a level that will enable us to keep, as I think you use the term "keep a foot on the throat of the terrorists." Jack Keane: I totally agree with that assessment. I think it's a political apple that leaders are not willing to swallow and talk to the American people honestly about - this is a multigenerational problem that we've got. We are being selective about which radical Islamic groups are threatening the American people. And you can make a case that we could possibly have to have a counterterrorism for us someplace in central South Asia, best place is Afghanistan, as long as that threat is there indefinitely. Sen. Angus King (ME): And it will require a military presence to support the counter terrorism function, is that what you're saying? Jack Keane: And I think we will eventually, frankly, get down below 8,600, at some point, and we'll narrow that down to Intelligence, Counter-Terrorism and Air Power that's outside the country to be able to support our activities. But it could possibly lead to an indefinite commitment of a small number of forces in that country. Much like we have less than a thousand now trying to keep our foot on ISIS, keep our foot on their throat in Syria to make sure that they don't re-emerge. Sen. Angus King (ME): I think you'd agree on it and I'm out of time, but I think you'd agree that if that's going to be the case, somebody's got to tell the American people. Jack Keane: I totally agree with that, Senator. Totally agree with that. Sen. Angus King (ME): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

1:53:48 Sen. Jim Inhofe (OK): I think there's merit in having a closed hearing for this committee. But not necessarily, we can do it ourselves. Good thought. We'll follow through.

Hearing: Examining the Trump Administration’s Afghanistan Strategy, United States House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Homeland Security, January 28, 2020

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  • John Sopko: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

17:35 Rep. Jody Hice (GA): To date, American taxpayers have spent $780 billion on combat operations, $137 billion on reconstruction efforts since 2002, so we're pushing $1 trillion here during that time. And in spite of that money, we've lost 2,400 courageous American service members during the conflict and one stat that often is overlooked is over 20,000 who had been wounded in action, many of them very seriously.

18:15 Rep. Jody Hice (GA): The United States is drawn down our military presence from a peak of about a hundred thousand under the Obama administration to less than 14,000 today.

26:30 John Sopko: Unfortunately, since my last appearance, not much has changed on the ground in Afghanistan to diminish our concerns. The military situation is still a deadly stalemate. The Afgan economy - extremely weak. Corruption - rampant. Narcotics production - growing. Reintegration of ex-combatants - problematic. Women's rights - threatened. And oversight restricted by widespread insecurity. Our newest quarterly report, which will be released in a few days, discusses all of these threats and in particular highlights that if peace is to be sustainable, financial support from donors will need to continue and may need to continue for years to come.

28:00 John Sopko: Now more than ever, I caution that if there is a peace agreement and continued assistance provided to the Afghan people, oversight needs to remain mission critical. Otherwise you might as well pile up all the dollars and euros in Masood Circle and downtown Kabul and burn them for whatever good they can accomplish.

32:55 John Sopko: Every metric that we used to provide you the Congress and the American people in our quarterly reports. Every metric that you would find useful is now either classified or no longer available. Now it's available, some of it in a classified setting, and I know Chairman, you and I spent some time there briefing on it. You know how difficult it is to use that, but this was information that we'd been providing publicly for years, and then it's been taken away. So that is a problem, but I can't answer why they eliminated that.

46:00 John Sopko: We decided to embark upon trying to learn some lessons from those 18 years. And what happened is in the course of that, we got a lot of information, reviewed a lot of cables, interviewed a lot of people. Some of the people we interviewed were reflective of what happened 10 years ago. And they basically were saying...I think General Lute and others that...we didn't know what was going on, but that was sort of after the fact. They're reflecting. It was very useful information in some areas, but a lot of the information was also talking about the warfighting and none of our reports deal with the warfighting. We deal with reconstruction and the training. We don't look at whether we should be in Afghanistan or not. So when Ambassador Lute or General Flynn say, we shouldn't be there, that's nice. It's his opinion, it's their opinion. But it doesn't help us do these lessons learned reports, which we've done seven. So that explains it. It's not that these people were evil, they're just reflecting on what they saw and observed seven, eight years ago.

48:55 John Sopko: We've almost created a system that forces people in the government to give happy talk - success stories because they're over there on very short rotations. They want to show success. The whole system is almost geared to give you, and it goes up the chain of command all the way to the President sometimes. He gets bad information from people out in the field because somebody on a nine month rotation, he has to show success and that goes up.

50:25 John Sopko: Well, Congress, I don't know if I can answer the bigger question about whether we are wasting our time or not. I'm going to leave that to you and the President to decide. But we are giving them systems, whether it's military hardware or other systems, that they can't use. And one of the questions we asked early on is do the Afghans and know about what we're giving them? Will they use it? Do they want it? And we couldn't even get government agencies that asked those questions. And I have run across Afghans who said, "I didn't know that clinic was being built until it was given to us by the donors."

53:05 John Sopko: We also have this hubris, which I think was identified before, that we think we can turn Afghanistan into little America or another Norway. We can't. That's the hubris.

54:25 John Sopko: Maybe incentivize honesty. And one of the proposals I gave at that time, cause I was asked by the staff to come up with proposals, is put the same requirement on the government that we impose on publicly traded corporations. Publicly traded corporations have to tell the truth. Otherwise the SEC will indict the people involved. They have to report when there's a significant event. So put that on us, call it The Truth in Government Act if you want, that you in the administration are duty bound by statute to alert Congress to significant events that could directly negatively impact a program or process. So incentivize honesty.

56:15 John Sopko: Well, I think now more than ever, because there are fewer state department aid people and DOD people there, you need somebody watching the store. And there will be a tendency, because of a security situation, decrease staffing to give the money directly to the Afghan government or to give the money through third party monitors such as the world bank and UN and other international organizations. And we have reported in the past that, first of all, the Afghan government's incapable of handling the money. We really need to do a ministerial assessment ministry by ministry to determine whether they can handle our taxpayer money. And then secondly, we have some real questions about some of these international organizations. The UN and the World Bank we've already identified have serious problems with monitoring it. So what we're saying is don't just focus on the troop level. Don't just focus on the amount of money, focus on how we are going to protect the U.S. taxpayers dollars. That's why I think now more than ever, we have to keep our focus on that.

59:11 Rep. Tom Massie (KY): Can you tell us how much we have spent on Afghanistan reconstruction at this point? John Sopko Congressman Massey, I can. The latest figure is 136.97 billion as of December 31st. So 136, you can round it off to 137 billion. That's staggering to me. But just for reference, the entire federal budget for roads and bridges is 50 billion to 60 billion. It's gone up a little bit. We could double our spending on our nation's infrastructure for two or three years for what we've spent in Afghanistan.

1:04:10 John Sopko: This building of this empire. You talk about it, you don't want to see, well, there is a soldier or somebody from the Pentagon who is trying to oversee that. If he comes back and the first traunch who's going to be protecting your money? That's my concern. That is the big concern. Getting out as a concern. But we've kind of worked our way around that. But you can't cut the oversight capabilities of Aid, State, and DOD in this, this drive for what they called right-sizing.

1:06:35 John Sopko: It has been our goal from the beginning is that kicked the Taliban out and try to help to create an Afghan government to keep the bad guys out from attacking us. So that's been a constant goal of all of the administrations. Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC): However, that goal seems to be very far in the distance. I mean, we have a great difficulty in achieving that. Correct? John Sopko: Well, I think the obvious answer is that we got 80,000 or 60,000 Taliban plus you have five to 10,000, I think ISIS members, and you got 20 over terrorist groups there. So obviously we have not succeeded in keeping the bad guys out or creating a government that can keep them out.

1:10:25 John Sopko: 70%. Over 70% of the Afghan budget comes from the United States and the donors. If that money ended, I have said before and I will stand by it, then the Afghan government will probably collapse.

1:10:45 Rep. Stacey Plaskett (VI) I can only think of those soldiers, those USA ID individuals who had been there all these years through their rotations, risking life, supporting the Americans objective, to have that thrown away because we believe we need to withdraw our troops at this point is just such a slap in their face.

1:13:15 Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC): And the American people, be sure the money being sent to Afghanistan is being spent for legitimate purposes and not being used for corrupt purposes. John Sopko: As hard as we all try, I don't think I have a warm, fuzzy feeling about the money being spent and its intended purposes. And I don't mean to be facetious ma'am, but the former head of CSTCA is an example. That's the Combined Security Training Command Afghanistan - estimated at one point that 50% of the fuel that we purchase for the Afghans disappears. 50%, so we're talking billions. So it is a significant problem, ma'am.

1:16:30 Chairman Carolyn Maloney (NY): I'd like to focus my questions on the importance of women in Afghanistan and the differences that has made with a America allowing them to participate in the economy and an education. I recall when we first went to Afghanistan, women were murdered and killed if they went to school. And now I'm told that they have made a tremendous progress over the past 18 years. They make up a 14% of a kindergarten to 12th grade and 30% of university students now are women. And there are more than 170 public and private higher education institutions across the country, even in the most difficult parts of Afghanistan. And I'm told that women are the majority of teachers at these schools, which is important. And according to some government reports, women make up to 27% of government employees before they were not even allowed to work. And they serve as ministers, deputy ministers, judges, and in many other positions. According to the United nations, maternal mortality rates...They used to be second in the world and they have fallen substantially. And that is because there are so many women that are trained as midwives and health professionals now and are working to help other women. And I understand they're over 530 public and private hospitals and hundreds of health and sub health centers. And even if these numbers are exaggerated women appear to be an important part of the success that is happening, certainly in education and healthcare. And so, wouldn't that alone makeup our investments, wouldn't that alone justify our investments in the country? I know the United nations has made several reports that when women are educated and empowered and respected, the amount of terrorism in that country or in that village goes down. So investing in women and allowing them to be part of of the country and not killing them if they go to school. I think we've made a tremendous impact in that country. And I'm afraid if we retreat and leave, it'll go back to the way it was before.

1:19:40 John Sopko: I must admit, for all the trips I've gone there and all of the Afghan women I have talked to, I have not met one Afghan woman who trusts the Taliban. And the concern is if they're excluded from the negotiations or if the negotiations are done by men and they ignore the advances, it is going to be very bad for women in Afghanistan.

1:29:45 John Sopko: Well, we actually, at the request of former Congressman Walter P. Jones and others, we did an analysis on how much money was wasted in Afghanistan. It was a very difficult, long term project. So we looked at all of our contracts that we have reviewed. And so 52 billion of that, 136 billion we looked at, and we basically determined that up to 15 billion. So about 30% was either wasted or stolen. Now, that was just of the universe that we had already looked at.

1:31:00 John Sopko: And again, how do we define waste? You notice three variables that we as IGs look at inputs, outputs, and outcomes. We look at the outcome that the administrations told Congress they were supposed to resolve. So like in counternarcotics, it was to lessen the amount of opium, it was to end that scourge. Well, it's been a total waste. None of our programs have led to any reduction in opium in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, opium is the largest export of Afghanistan. It's more than the licit crop. I think it's 1.2 to $2 billion in export. The licit, the pine nuts and everything else they sell comes to less than a billion. So we looked at that program and said, that's a waste. We spent, we wasted $9 billion. We've accomplished really nothing.

1:32:25 John Sopko: Back in 2013, I sent a letter to the Sec Def, Sec State and Administrator of USAID and I said, can you list your top 10 successes and your bottom 10 failures and why? And this would have forced the administration to rack and stack their programs, list what works, what doesn't, and try to understand what works there. They refused to answer the mail in 2013. So in 2014 we basically came up the lessons learned program. I was trying to answer my mail to you. You got to force the administration to be honest. And, and it's not political, Republican, Democrat. The administration has to come in and tell you specifically, why are you spending this money? What do you expect to accomplish at the end, you're going to spend $9 billion in counter narcotics and the end result is that there's actually more opium been grown. Are you going to spend $500 million on airplanes and they can't fly? You're going to spend millions of dollars on air on buildings that melt. I mean, you need to hold people accountable. You need to bring in the head of those programs and say, "what were you thinking?" And don't be negative about it. Just say, look at if it doesn't work, stop, do something else.

1:38:15 John Sopko: But if you decide this is important, then the biggest stick you have for the Afghans as well as the Taliban, because the Taliban want foreign assistance too. That's what's been reported, is that 70% of the budget, those billions of dollars that they will want, and you have to hold their feet to the fire. It's called conditionality. So if you want assistance, you can't go back to your old ways. I mean, that would be the way I would bargain this.

1:42:55 John Sopko: We need to have a government that the Afghan people trust and believe in, and it offers a modicum of services that those people want. Because the difficulty we have is that, for example, Afghan people want a little bit of justice. They don't want to have to pay a bribe to get it. What we gave them were a bunch of courthouses that looked nice. They would fit in any American city, but that's not what the Afghan people wanted. They wanted a modicum of justice that they didn't have to pay a bribe.

Hearing: Craig Whitlock on the Afghanistan Papers, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, January 6, 2020


  • Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post

1:45 Bill Scanlan: The Special Inspector General - SIGAR...They've done monthly reports, almost weekly updates. They're very transparent and open. What was the purpose they told you of these, these interviews and why had they been held secret or classified or unavailable to the public? Craig Whitlock: Right. So the reason they did these interviews was for a special project called Lessons Learned in which they were trying to figure out the mistakes made during the war in Afghanistan. This started in 2014 and it's important to remember, this was five years ago, people thought the war was coming to an end. You know, President Obama had declared an end to combat operations. He had promised to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of his presidency. So the Inspector General thought it'd be a good time to figure out what mistakes were made that they could learn about for the future if they were ever involved in another war. So they did hundreds of these interviews and did publish a number of reports about these lessons learned. But what they did is they left out all the good parts, all the striking quotes, all the unvarnished commentary from people who were involved in the war about just how bad things were. They left all that out, and so we had to go in under the Freedom of Information Act and obtain those. That way. They're not classified, these are public documents. It's just we had to persuade the Inspector General to finally release them.

Speech: U.S. Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, C-SPAN, White House Speech, March 27, 2009

Full Transcript


  • Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post

5:00 Barack Obama: So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

12:00: Barack Obama: We will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country.

13:55 Barack Obama: to advance security, opportunity and justice -- not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces -- we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that, isn't dominated by illicit drugs. And that's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground. That's also why we must seek civilian support from our partners and allies, from the United Nations and international aid organizations.

15:20 Barack Obama: As we provide these resources, the days of unaccountable spending, no-bid contracts, and wasteful reconstruction must end. So my budget will increase funding for a strong Inspector General at both the State Department and USAID, and include robust funding for the special inspector generals for Afghan Reconstruction.

Testimony: International Campaign Against Terrorism, C-SPAN, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 25, 2001


  • Colin Powell: Secretary of State

26:50 Colin Powell: Our work in Afghanistan though, is not just of a military nature. We recognize that when the Al Qaeda organization has been destroyed in Afghanistan, and as we continue to try to destroy it in all the nations in which it exists around the world, and when the Taliban regime has gone to its final reward, we need to put in place a new government in Afghanistan, one that represents all the people of Afghanistan and one that is not dominated by any single powerful neighbor, but instead is dominated by the will of the people of Afghanistan.

27:10 Colin Powell: We need to put in place a new government in Afghanistan.

27:25 Colin Powell: Ambassador Richard Haass, the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department is my personal representative working with the United Nations.

42:45 Colin Powell: I think once the Taliban regime is gone and there's hope for a new broad-based government that represents all the people of Afghanistan, and when aid starts to flow in, I think that will cause most of the groupings in Afghanistan to realize this is not the time to fight this as the time to participate in this new world. That's our hope.

Public Address: U.S. Military Strikes, C-SPAN, President George W. Bush, October 7, 2001

President George W. Bush: Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime. More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands, closed terrorist training camps, hand over leaders of the Al Qaeda network, and return all foreign nationals including American citizens, unjustly detained in your country. None of these demands were met and now the Taliban will pay a price by destroying camps and disrupting communications. We will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans.