The United States has spent more than $64 billion rebuilding Afghanistan's military and police forces since 2001—but there is literally no way for American taxpayers to know whether their investment has been worth it.
"Most of the [indicators] of measuring success are now classified, or we don't collect it. So I can't tell you, publicly, how well a job we're doing on training," John Sopko, the special inspector general for the Afghanistan reconstruction effort told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
America has been propping up Afghan security forces since soon after the 2001 invasion of the country. The idea has been to eventually leave behind a military and police apparatus that can fight the Taliban and other terrorist groups without American support—and, ultimately, to prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into a state of lawlessness that could make it a breeding ground for terrorism once again.
Having goals is one thing. But 19 years after America's longest war began, there is little indication that the U.S. is any closer to achieving them. And now, as Sopko told the committee on Tuesday, it seems like U.S. military and political leaders don't even have a way to accurately determine if those goals are being met.
Even the most basic data points are being obscured, according to Sopko.
"How many Afghan soldiers do we have? We're still trying to figure out how many we are paying for. How many Afghan police are there, really? We don't know," Sopko said Tuesday. "This isn't rocket science, but apparently it's all secret, classified, and I can't tell you what the results are."
That the United States has sought to suppress negative information about the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan is not news to anyone familiar with The Washington Post's bombshell "Afghanistan Papers" report. Published in December, the Post's report included more than 2,000 pages of interviews conducted by Sopko's office with "people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials." Those internal documents paint a picture of a nation-building effort that has lacked definable goals, wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and done little to improve the internal security of Afghanistan—all while American officials have deliberately misled Congress and the public about the extent of the quagmire. Tuesday's hearing was called in response to the Post's report.
"It portrays a U.S. war effort severely impaired by mission creep and suffering from a complete absence of clear and achievable objectives," Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who called Tuesday's hearing, said of the Post's report. "What the Afghan Papers makes crystal clear is that doing nothing is no longer an option for any senator or member of Congress with a conscience."
While there are no shortage of ideas for how to improve America's reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, Paul said Tuesday that members of Congress should view the entire project more skeptically after the Post's reporting.
"The bigger question is whether or not we should be in the business of trying to create nations," he said.
While the Post's report was indeed shocking, it largely confirmed what the special inspector general's office has been reporting for years. It has published more than 600 audits since 2008 and has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the United States' misleading account of the nation-building effort.
In 2014, for example, the United States Agency for International Development published a report claiming that 3 million Afghan girls and 5 million Afghan boys were attending school—up from a total of 900,000 during the period of time when the Taliban ruled the country. The inspector general's office found that the U.S. was simply repeating the Afghan government's claims about school enrollment and had not sought to verify the totals—totals that even the Afghan Ministry of Education had called into question.
Another audit looked at more than $1 billion the United States had spent supporting "rule of law programs" in Afghanistan. Shockingly, auditors found that progress wasn't just slow—it was going backward. In 2009, America's overall rule-of-law strategy in Afghanistan contained 27 performance metrics. By 2013 those metrics had been abolished, making it impossible to determine whether the programs were succeeding or not.
That audit is part of a disturbing trend. When there hasn't been progress to show, America's Afghanistan strategy has been to prevent showing the lack of progress.
On Tuesday, Sopko told the committee that both the American and Afghan governments have been increasingly classifying information that auditors need to review to determine if progress is being made.
One of his office's most recent reports looked at the declining number of independent missions that the Afghan special forces have been conducting. Sopko told the committee to keep an eye on that metric.
"I'm not a betting man, but I will bet you that next quarter that database will be classified," Sopko told the committee. "Every time we find something that looks like it's going negative, it gets classified or it's [ruled] no longer relevant."
Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) interrupted to ask a vital question: "How is the public, or this Congress—which is supposed to be performing oversight—how are we going to measure any progress if we don't have any access to data or metrics?"
Sopko sighed. "That's the point we've been trying to make over the past five or six years."