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Inspector general report is issued on the collapse of the Afghan government

NOEL KING, HOST:

John Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. His job for the past 10 years has been to monitor how U.S. tax dollars are and were spent there. Congress asked him to look into what led to the collapse of the Afghan government in August. And his new report is out this morning. Some of it is very familiar - corruption, lack of oversight. But Sopko also told me the American public is not getting the full picture because critical details are still classified.

Are you getting the information you need from the U.S. government to figure out all of the answers that you need to these questions?

JOHN SOPKO: Well, yes and no. We're getting information. We've set up teams. And actually, we're getting a lot of information from former Afghan officials who we were - now out at various military bases and around the world talking to them. But your question was directly on U.S. government support. We still need to get some information from them.

And we really need to get information declassified. There is a lot of information that was classified or withheld from the American people over the years, particularly since 2015, to protect the Afghan government from embarrassment. And there is no Ghani government. There is no Afghan government anymore. So we think that information should be immediately released to SIGAR and to the American people and Congress in an unclassified format.

KING: What type of information are you talking about?

SOPKO: Well, Noel, this is the type of information that you and some of your reporters have been dying to see for years. It was, how good was the Afghan government fighting corruption? How good was the Afghan military able to stand on their own? - casualty rates for the Afghan military, efficiency rates, their ability to actually function as an independent military. That was information that the Ghani government requested the U.S. government not share with the American people. There's no reason to protect it any more.

KING: Asking a question that our listeners I know will wonder, and I think you may have just answered it at the end there, but I want to be clear on this, why would that kind of information be classified? This was at the request of the Afghan government?

SOPKO: Well, we don't know. We thought there...

KING: Oh.

SOPKO: ...It should have been declassified. I mean, they basically said that the Afghan government did not want that information made available to the American people and to anybody - probably more to their own people. It would embarrass them. But you'll have to ask President Ghani, if you can find him, or some of our generals as to why they did it. But they followed the suggestion of the Afghan government. And they withheld all that information. Now, those who had clearances could see it. And we prepared classified annexes where we summarized it. So we're asking that those classified annexes be declassified, too. But there is tons of information that would give a clearer picture of what was going on in Afghanistan over the last two years.

KING: The United States spent $89 billion training and equipping Afghan forces. Was that wasted money?

SOPKO: I think the obvious answer is yes. (Laughter) I mean, you know, you build a military to fight the enemies. Well, when the military disappears or didn't even exist - I mean, that is the ironic thing, Noel. One of the things we report on is that we developed a special IT system for the Afghans to count the number of soldiers and police they had. And it was also supposed to be so we could catch these ghost soldiers and ghost policemen who didn't exist, and we were paying their salaries. But the week before the collapse, that system, which was run by the Afghans, said that 93% of the police force in Afghanistan was showing up for duty and should be paid. Well, no, (laughter) the week before, most of Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban. So this shows how, you know, total farce and total fiction that system was. And that goes back to one of the problems we identified before - the lack of oversight over how our U.S. taxpayer dollars were being spent.

KING: Do you have any updates on something that we talked about quite a bit when the U.S. first left Afghanistan, which is all of the tanks and guns and aircraft that we gave to Afghan forces and then left behind? Any idea who's using them now? I mean, you know, not to be flip, but...

SOPKO: Well, the problem is that we don't really have good information on the ground. We do have reporting from the U.S. military that there - material that our U.S. troops had at the airport or at the end was destroyed. But what I believe most people are focusing on, and that's something we are focusing on now is, what happened to all the equipment we gave the Afghans? Now, that material - it appears most of that is in the hands of the Taliban and usable.

KING: Does that strike you as a security threat to the United States?

SOPKO: Yes. There is some security threat there. It's not as if, you know, an M16 can, you know, somehow in Afghanistan's going to end up on the streets of New York. But what it means is that you have a really well-equipped Taliban with some good equipment. And we don't know what they're going to do with it - probably more weapons than they need. So I'm assuming that may be hitting the international gun market. So you don't know who's going to end up with some of this equipment.

Now, we believe most of the airplanes and helicopters that the Afghan military had at the end were even destroyed by the Afghan military before they left or flown out. We think about 25% of the aircraft and helicopters were actually flown out of the country by Afghan pilots. But we're trying to document that. And that's one of the things that Congress has asked us to look into.

KING: You've been doing this work for almost 10 years.

SOPKO: (Laughter).

KING: How worried are you that what you have found will be dismissed or forgotten or that the mistakes will be repeated? The United States has an unfortunate problem of memory, I think is one is one fair way to put it. Do you think what you've been doing will matter?

SOPKO: We hope it will. As I have said repeatedly, we will do something like this again sometime soon. And we are doing this in small ways. But they could grow in some countries in Africa right now. I hope people learn the lessons. But, you know, you can only bring a horse to water. You can't make them drink.

KING: John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, or SIGAR - thank you so much for taking the time today. We really appreciate it.

SOPKO: It is a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "THREE GOOD THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.