Pentagon & Congress

There is a ‘disincentive’ to tell the truth about progress in Afghanistan, Pentagon official says

Military leaders have incentive to lie on Afghanistan progress - special IG

John Sopko, the special inspector general on reconstruction in Afghanistan, said commanders in Afghanistan have a 'disincentive' to tell the truth about the progress they're making in the country, thwarting efforts there. He also called the Afghanistan military and police a "hopeless nightmare." (U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee)

The sunny outlooks reported by senior leaders in Afghanistan over the last two decades created a vicious cycle, a Defense Department special inspector general told lawmakers on Wednesday, because each successive rotation of troops was expected to produce results.

In an exchange with the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction John Sopko explained his response to allegations in the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers report.

“The problem is, there’s a disincentive, really, to tell the truth,” said John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. “We have created an incentive to almost require … people to lie.”

It’s an issue of “mendacity and hubris,” he added, which snowballed into years of continued deployments and aid to Afghanistan, without an exit strategy.

“There was a disconnect, almost from my first trip over there, between what [the United States Agency for International Development], State and DoD said was going on, and what I saw and what my staff were seeing on the ground,” Sopko said.

And yet optimistic reports always found their way to the people in charge of funding the efforts.

“Year after year we heard, quote: ‘We’re making progress.’ Year after year we were told, quote: ‘We’re turning a corner,’” committee chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said. “While presidents and military officials were painting a rosy picture, the reality on the ground was a consistently deepening quagmire with no end in sight.”

But deployments only offer a snapshot in time, and while there may be some small steps made during that period, they were never enough to string together major sea change over the long term.

“You create from the bottom up, an incentive, because of short timelines — you’re there for six months, nine months or a year — to show success,” he said. “That gets reported up the chain, and before you know it, the president is talking about a success that doesn’t exist.”

Simply put, each commander on the ground wanted to justify his efforts.

“I’m not going to name names but I think everybody has that incentive to give happy talk — to show success,” Sopko said. “Maybe it’s human nature to do that. I mean most of the lying is lying to ourselves. We want to show success.”

One former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is now the chairman of the joint chiefs.

“This army and this police force have been very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day. And I think that’s an important story to be told across the board,” then-Lt. Gen. Mark Milley said in a 2013 briefing from Kabul.

When asked whether he ever misrepresented the situation on the ground, Milley told reporters at a briefing in December that he had never deceived anyone.

“I could not look myself in the mirror,"he said. “I couldn’t answer myself at two to three in the morning when my eyes pop open and see the dead roll in front of my eyes.”

Despite conclusions across the board that the Afghanistan situation would not be solved by the military, Engel said, President Trump in 2017 surged troops to the country.

Though the president shut down peace talks in September, negotiations seemed to rekindle later in the year, as Trump visited Afghanistan over Thanksgiving, and the Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for reconciliation in Afghanistan visited Kabul to sit down with leaders in December.

Sopko offered a warning, should all sides finally reach an agreement.

“In light of the ongoing peace negotiations, Congress should ensure that the administration has an actionable plan for what happens the day after peace is declared,” Sopko said.

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