Small Wars Journal

U.S. Challenges in Afghanistan: A Discussion with John Sopko

Prepared Remarks of John F. Sopko
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
For Delivery at the Watson Institute for International Studies
Providence, RI
November 18, 2015

U.S. Challenges in Afghanistan: A Discussion with John Sopko

Thank you, Sue Eckert, for that kind introduction. And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for allowing me to share this time with you this afternoon. I promise to make my remarks short and sweet, as to leave ample time for questions. That might be difficult for me since I am a lawyer by training and am used to being paid by the word. Nonetheless, I will try to be concise.

I’m here to discuss with you what I consider one of the most important national security issues facing our nation, now, and in generations to come: how we can better rebuild states in post- conflict environments. You only have to look at Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the recent news in Paris to appreciate the number and diversity of failed states, as well as their consequence to international security, if not properly addressed.

Why is this important to you and our nation? Here at the Watson Institute, you understand that history has a funny way of repeating itself. And if history is any guide, the U.S. will be working to stabilize another country steeped in insecurity, suffering from widespread corruption, facing major narcotics production, and with extremely low levels of development.

At the same time, I cannot imagine a better, and more relevant, experience from which to learn than our 14-year involvement in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is our longest war. America’s investment in Afghanistan has been unprecedented. To date, the U.S. has spent more than $110 billion of taxpayer funds just on reconstruction.

That’s an extraordinary amount of money. For those of you struggling to grasp the concept of just how big $110 billion is, let me put it in context. It is more than the U.S. has spent on reconstruction in any other country in our nation’s history. Adjusting for inflation, it is more than the U.S. spent on the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. And we still aren’t done in Afghanistan – we, in addition to our allies, have promised billions more for years to come.

The fact that we have invested so much in Afghanistan makes it all the more important that we “get it right,” as far as reconstruction goes. An even more important reason to get the reconstruction right is that our efforts there serve our most realistic hope of cultivating a stable nation-state that will never again serve as a springboard international terrorism. Indeed, getting the reconstruction mission right is the best insurance policy we can buy to make sure our 14- year investment of more than 2,200[1] American lives and $1 trillion in taxpayer funding, for both reconstruction and warfighting, are not wasted.

For these reasons, I suggest that we must learn from, and improve upon, our 14-years of reconstruction in Afghanistan. The lessons we learn in Afghanistan will help you, as future policymakers and implementers in the diplomatic and national security world, to ensure that

U.S. foreign policy is conducted in a more effective manner.


Taking note of the challenges plaguing U.S. reconstruction policy and the lessons learned from our efforts in Afghanistan is where my small agency, with the odd tobacco-flavored acronym: SIGAR – that’s SIGAR with an “S”, not a “C” – comes into play.

The U.S. Congress established SIGAR in 2008 to watch over American tax dollars being spent on the reconstruction mission in Afghanistan, and to identify instances of waste, fraud, and abuse. In 2012, President Obama appointed me Special Inspector General to replace the original IG, who the Senate forced to resign due to a dissatisfying performance.

I am a former state and federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice, Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, as well as a former partner at an international law firm. I also spent more than 20 years on Capitol Hill working for the likes of Senator Sam Nunn, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Representative John Dingell, the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Both of these lawmakers made strong, bipartisan oversight the hallmark of their careers.

SIGAR is unique and very different from other IG offices.

  1. First, we are temporary. SIGAR’s enabling legislation requires that we wind down once the balance of undisbursed funds for Afghanistan reconstruction falls below $250 million. Accordingly, for us, time is of the essence.
  2. Second, SIGAR is not part of any federal agency. Unlike the DOD, State, and USAID IGs, we sit above any agency spending money on reconstruction. Accordingly, our enabling legislation is replete with language stating we must be “objective and independent” in our work.
  3. Third, we have a broad inter-agency mandate. Congress gave SIGAR blanket authority to examine any and all Afghanistan reconstruction activities, regardless of agency ownership. This is significant because, in a conflict zone like Afghanistan—or any future conflict zone, for that matter—federal agencies must work together to tackle key problems.

We issue audits and reports highlighting the problems we find, make recommendations wherever we can, and even arrest criminals, including members of the military, who steal from the U.S. government. But let me be clear about this – only SIGAR is mandated by statute to assess the reconstruction effort and to make recommendations on the “whole of government approach” to reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Since SIGAR’s creation, we have issued more than 300 audits, inspections, alert letters, and other products, totaling more than 600 recommendations and have identified over $1 billion in funds put to better use. In addition, our investigations unit has conducted nearly 900 investigations, resulting in 103 arrests, 136 criminal charges, 100 convictions or guilty pleas, 78 sentencings, and roughly $945 million in savings for American taxpayers.

I’ll note three recent products just to give you a flavor of the breadth of our activities.

In June, SIGAR raised questions regarding the accuracy of location data for USAID-funded health care facilities throughout Afghanistan. A key component of the program was the use of geospatial information to ensure health facilities were located where they were supposed to be and that they were providing services to the surrounding community. Our analysis found that coordinates reported for 13 facilities were not located in Afghanistan. Shockingly, one was located in the Mediterranean Sea, and 30 others were located in a province different from the one USAID reported.

Accurate location information is important for conducting meaningful oversight of these facilities. Additionally, given the recent tragedy at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, it is absolutely critical that the U.S. government and Afghan ministries have accurate geolocation data to protect health facilities and the people using them.

In October, SIGAR published an audit of U.S. support provided to the Afghan Local Police, or ALP. The audit found that the ALP’s effectiveness is hindered by inadequate logistics support and misuse of personnel as personal bodyguards for politicians. Supplies ordered for the ALP are often diverted, delayed, of inferior quality, or heavily pilfered, which coalition and ALP personnel attribute to an increase in attrition likelihood. Given that the ALP is the first line of defense for many villages across Afghanistan, it is vital that the U.S. ensures the ALP have the support and supplies they need to do their job. And given the many reports that human rights violations by local ALP units in Kunduz Province may have contributed to the fall of that provincial capital, you can see how important our work may be to the ultimate success of the Afghan mission.

Lastly, just a few weeks ago, SIGAR issued a report on a $43 million compressed natural gas station in northern Afghanistan. Yes, that’s correct, the world’s most expensive gas station is in Afghanistan, and U.S. taxpayers paid for it. The Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations project was intended to take advantage of Afghanistan's natural gas reserves and reduce the country's reliance on expensive imported gasoline.

However, the cost of the station far exceeded the cost of building similar stations in nearby Pakistan. According to the International Energy Agency, a similar station in Pakistan costs between $300,000 and $500,000,[2] yet the actual cost of this station was 8000 percent higher than that.

We have learned from reports such as those that reconstruction disasters like these often occur when the U.S. officials who implement and oversee programs fail to distinguish fact from fantasy, or output from outcome, and operate in a world where personal accountability is nearly nonexistent. In addition to this broader, overarching problem, we at SIGAR have identified four specific, persistent challenges that are almost toxic to the reconstruction mission:

  • First, the inability to define requirements, measure effectiveness, and assess sustainability of projects;
  • Second, the lack of coordination within our own government, with the Afghans, and with other partner governments;
  • Third, poor planning, oversight, and accountability; and
  • Finally, corruption.

U.S. Challenges in Afghanistan

Let’s talk about those challenges now.

The first challenge I have identified is the inability to define requirements, measure effectiveness, and assess sustainability. There are many examples I could cite here, but the fundamental problem is that U.S. agencies measure inputs and outputs, rather than outcomes.

Now in theory, it should be easy to measure inputs and outputs. You would think that U.S. agencies could count the amount of money spent, the number of students on a class roster, the number of health clinics built, or soldiers trained. But even this the agencies can’t do very well. For instance, USAID has struggled mightily at the basic task of counting the number of schools it has built over the last decade—with the number actually declining from 680 to 563. It seems that they have somehow forgotten that the mission is reconstruction, not deconstruction

More importantly, these numbers do not tell policymakers anything about the effectiveness of our programs. That is, whether or not the students are learning, the health clinics are serving the population’s needs, or the soldiers can hold their own in battle. These are outcomes, and this is what we need to measure to tell us whether the $110 billion in taxpayer dollars has had an impact in making Afghanistan a more stable and prosperous place.

Why is this so important? Well, if we have to cut programs going forward because we have a limited number of funds, we must know which programs are the most effective. Further, we must also know which ones the Afghans actually want, and can use, because the cruelest joke is giving the Afghans something they can’t use, whether that’s a school without teachers, or a hospital without medicine or doctors and nurses.

The second challenge the U.S. faces in the Afghan reconstruction mission is lack of coordination within our own government, with the Afghans, and with other governments.

A perfect example is the U.S. government’s efforts to develop an extractives industry in Afghanistan. A SIGAR audit found that the U.S. government did not have a unified strategy for the development of Afghanistan’s extractives industry. Instead, a Department of Defense task force and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, pursued divergent approaches to their initiatives.

In addition to the lack of overall strategy, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul did little to coordinate interagency activities aimed at developing the industry. In fact, one senior official from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stated that the embassy did not become aware of a $39.6 million TFBSO project until Afghan government officials thanked the ambassador for U.S. support. Ultimately, by not coordinating the various U.S. lines of effort, we undermined our own mission and wasted U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Of course, poor coordination does not just extend to U.S. agencies, the U.S. government has also struggled to coordinate with our international allies. For example, USAID’s PROMOTE program to support Afghan women included a provision for $200 million in funding from international partners. However, when I met with the European ambassadors and asked them about the program, they had never heard of it. Sadly, this is indicative of too many of our efforts in Afghanistan—we fail to talk to our partners. As it is an issue of such importance, it will likely be the first Lessons Learned report we release.

Why is this important? Little to no coordination causes agencies and projects to work at cross- purposes, spend funds on frivolous endeavors, or fail to maximize impact.

Poor planning, oversight, and lack of accountability is the third challenge SIGAR has identified. One example of poor planning was the nearly $13 million in electrical equipment the U.S. bought for an Afghan electricity operator that was never used. The U.S. funded the procurement of the equipment without considering the operator’s lack of capacity to install and manage the equipment and without requiring an initial, achievable plan for installation.

Additionally, poor oversight can cost lives. In one particular case, U.S. contracting officer representatives did not properly oversee the installation of Culvert Denial Systems. Culvert Denial Systems are barriers made of rebar at either end of culverts under a highway and are designed to prevent human entry, while still allowing water to flow through the culvert itself. Insurgents use culverts under the highways to plant improvised explosive devices (IED's) intended to kill coalition forces and Afghan civilians. In this case, the contractor submitted fraudulent invoices stating the Culvert Denial Systems had been installed, but, as a result of the systems not being installed, American soldiers were killed and wounded by IEDs placed in these culverts. It sadly illustrates the simple fact that fraud can kill. Oversight is not just about saving money but more importantly, it can save lives.

Another example of the lack of accountability in the reconstruction mission is what we call the “64k building.” In this instance, the U.S. military built a large headquarters facility at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province to assist with the surge in 2010. Yet, the general in charge of

the surge in Helmand requested that the facility not be built because it was not needed. The request to cancel the building, however, was rejected by a different general because he believed it would not be “prudent” to cancel a project for which congress had already appropriated funds. The failure to follow the advice to cancel the building’s construction resulted in the waste of roughly $36 million, and the general who refused to cancel the project has never been held accountable by the Department of Defense. In fact, to this day, I have not been able to find one single person that has been fired or denied a promotion for all the many problems we have seen in the reconstruction effort.

The fourth challenge is the ongoing battle against corruption. As Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has observed, “There is increasing reason to believe that acute corruption contributes to international instability” by creating grievances, spurring indignation, and generating support for anti-government militants, which undermines the U.S.’ mission.[3]

A study commissioned last year by then ISAF commander, General Joseph Dunford, continues along the same thread. The report states: “Corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state.” The Dunford report also admits that the initial U.S. strategy in Afghanistan not only failed to recognize the significance of corruption, but also may even have fostered a political climate conducive to corruption, and while the U.S. has made steps in the right direction, we could do more to hold the Afghan government accountable.

Why is this important? Corruption undermines every single endeavor we undertake in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is ever to prosper on its own, and if any of the gains we have fostered are to last, corruption must be addressed in a meaningful way.

While SIGAR’s work is focused on the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, the challenges I have identified apply to stability operations regardless of the location. As such, the U.S. government must ensure that the lessons we learn from these challenges, and the best practices developed, are internalized and eventually institutionalized.

Lessons Learned

As the 20th century philosopher, George Santayana, once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To prevent history from repeating itself, we must study and learn from our missteps. We will be conducting reconstruction efforts again, and likely

sooner, rather than later. We cannot afford, in national treasure or human lives, to continually repeat the mistakes of our recent past.

As such, the U.S. government must ensure that the lessons we take away from the reconstruction missions in Afghanistan, and Iraq, are internalized and institutionalized for our future body of work. To be sure, this process of adaptation requires—even demands—updates to policy, regulations, and even military doctrine to reflect the ways we can operate more effectively in conflict environments.

We cannot stop there. Institutionalization is important, but internalization of lessons learned is equally paramount. Civilian and military training manuals and professional training courses must inculcate current and future policymakers with the lessons of Afghanistan.

Given SIGAR’s mandate, we are uniquely positioned to identify the missteps and bad practices of our “whole of government approach” to reconstruction and provide recommendations. In fact, General John Allen, the former ISAF commander, once told me over breakfast that he supports SIGAR’s mission because he thinks the work we do is vitally important for ensuring history does not repeat itself.

With that in mind, I recently developed a lessons learned program at SIGAR. We are taking stock of some of the most pertinent issues in the Afghanistan reconstruction mission, and we will publish our findings. Some examples of forthcoming reports include:

  • security sector assistance;
  • economic development and social development;
  • coordination of international assistance;
  • interagency strategy and planning; and
  • anti-corruption.

These reports will provide practical recommendations to key stakeholders that play a role in designing, implementing, and overseeing U.S. reconstruction assistance.


Winston Churchill once said, “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tide and hurricanes he will encounter.”[4]

Reconstructing fragile states like Afghanistan is a lot like riding out the tide in the midst of a hurricane. It is not an easy business and there are lots of challenges. Failing to measure outcomes makes determining impact impossible. Lack of coordination threatens project success, and more than likely wastes taxpayer funds. Poor planning and shoddy execution undermine our mission, and theft and corruption by government officials erode any legitimacy or trust conferred by the population.

Afghanistan is a case study for anyone hoping to gain wisdom from the world of conflict- affected states. We can learn a great deal from the reconstruction challenges we face in Afghanistan. What we do with these lessons is up to us. But we should listen to Churchill. We should take note of these challenges and learn from them to get it right in Afghanistan, to help make our next reconstruction endeavor a little less challenging.

As I end today’s discussion, I want to leave you with one final thought: namely, how critical oversight is to our success in Afghanistan, the next reconstruction mission, and government operations as whole. It would behoove you, as students of international and public affairs, to investigate the role of oversight in foreign policy, whether that is Congressional oversight, or that of an inspector general. Oversight is mission critical. If we don’t learn that lesson, I can safely predict to you, based upon my 30 years watching Washington government bureaucracies, that we will be doomed to repeat history.

With that, I welcome your questions. Thank you!


[2] Michiel Nijboer, International Energy Agency, The Contributionof Natural Gas Vehicles to Sustainable Transport, 2010, p. 22.

[3] Sarah Chayes, “Corruption: The Priority Intelligence Requirement,” Carnegie Endowment essay, 9/9/2014.



Andy Tamas

Sat, 11/21/2015 - 4:14pm

The terms "reconstruction" and "rebuilding" when applied to troubled countries such as Afghanistan presumes they were, at some time in the past, relatively well-functioning states in the modern sense. This is a questionable assumption - they may once have been more stable and secure than at present, but few had the systems and structures implied in the "rebuilding failed states" terminology. The colonial era is past, and the world now consists of almost 200 so-called sovereign states, many of which are not well managed and are of concern to us all. The US has taken on the lion's share of the load in dealing with many of these troubled countries, but it can't do it on its own. The lack of an overarching global governance framework contributes to what is called the "anarchy of state sovereignty" where almost any territory with a name, constitution, and a seat at the UN is treated as if its leadership can properly manage its affairs. This is far from the truth, and the challenges identified by SIGAR provide ample evidence that a better system is needed to handle the many troubling issues identified in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The crisis in Syria and Iraq, with the rise of ISIS and others, can in large part be attributed to the lack of such an overarching system with the authority to manage relationships among states and to intervene un-invited if required to deal with problems within incompetently-managed countries. We will realize the need for such a system - eventually - and put one in place.


Thu, 11/19/2015 - 12:12pm

So SIGAR's strategy for victory in Afghanistan is to keep better count of the schools and hospitals we build.

Move Forward

Thu, 11/19/2015 - 9:03am

In reply to by Jeff Goodson

Mr.Goodson, your lifelong efforts and level of USAID responsibility are applauded. Your "War on the Rocks" article is listed in the SWJ Blog and I used one of your links to access the SIGAR report on the Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) station. In your November 18th “War on the Rocks” article you said this:

<blockquote>TFBSO’s part of Shebergan included the Downstream Gas Utilization Project. SIGAR states that the project consisted of building and operating the CNG fueling station, but in fact the project had seven objectives. Building the station — as well as an administrative office building — was one. The other six included expert and legal support to the Afghan government, and for industry expansion, increasing CNG investment value and reducing investment risk.</blockquote>

You go on in your article to mention these specific costs outlined in the SIGAR report:

<blockquote>The contract awarded to Central Asian Engineering to construct the station was for just under $3 million. Yet according to an economic impact assessment performed at the request of TFBSO:

The Task Force spent $42,718,739 between 2011 and 2014 to fund the construction and to supervise the initial operation of the CNG station (approximately $12.3 [million] in direct costs and $30.0 [million] in overhead costs).</blockquote>

The SIGAR report states that a similar station in Pakistan would have cost about $306,000. Admittedly, Afghanistan is more dangerous than Pakistan dictating security costs to protect contractors and transport costs to get contractors and materials to the site of the station, but that would seem reflective of the $3 million cost originally budgeted in the above first paragraph while $12.3 million is quoted in the second paragraph as the eventual actual “direct costs.”

In your “War on the Rocks” article you mention seven objectives that were outlined in the SIGAR report as well in the quote below. My amateur look at these objectives and costs as a past peon business owner for 13 years who knows how to make money stretch would indicate that six of the objectives you and SIGAR mentioned resulted in $30 million in “overhead costs” that presumably were paid to your mentioned “SMEs and legal experts” identified in the 3rd and 6th objective with other objectives merely implying reports.:

<blockquote>According to TFBSO documents, the objectives of the project were to:

1) Build the first ever CNG complex in Afghanistan, consisting of a fully-functional fueling station with two dispensers/four hoses, one CNG trailer filling point, a car conversion center, an administrative office building, and gas compression and processing equipment;

2) Prove that there is an interest on the part of the Afghan government in CNG, thereby reducing the risk to the investor through government support;

3) Provide subject matter experts and legal support to the CNG office in the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in tendering the TFBSO built CNG station;

4) Create a market value for a CNG station;

5) Expand the CNG industry to Mazar-e Sharif, the second-largest city in Afghanistan, with a market of 100,000 cars;

6) Provide subject matter expert support to the CNG station to increase the size of the CNG market; and

7) Increase the value of CNG investments in Afghanistan, reduce the risk to investment, and increase the domestic consumption of natural gas. </blockquote>

Given the overall TFBSO $822 million budget identified in the SIGAR report quote below, one might question why spending 1/20th of that budget on this CNG investment with much of it going to “overhead” was worthwhile:

<blockquote> From 2010 through 2014, Congress appropriated approximately $822 million to TFBSO for Afghanistan, of which the task force obligated approximately $766 million. </blockquote>

Arguably, spending that $43 million <i>could</i> be worthwhile if it was sustainable after the U.S. departs and was realistic in terms of CNG expansion and value to the average Afghan. However, SIGAR's report seems to indicate that was not the case. Pipeline building cost to Kabul were estimated at $940 million. Even more alarming was the $700-800 cost per car to convert to CNG use, matching the average annual income of Afghans. In effect, the U.S. paid $43 million to support 120 Afghan government vehicles that were converted to run on CNG:

<blockquote>There is only one operational natural gas pipeline in Afghanistan, running between the Sheberghan natural gas fields and the Northern Fertilizer and Power Plant in Mazar-e-Sharif. A USAID study completed in March 2015 estimated that building a natural gas pipeline from the gas fields near Sheberghan to Kabul for electric powerplants would cost $940 million. While the study stated that such a project might be economically viable for electric power generation, ongoing security challenges add substantial risk and cost to large infrastructure investments in Afghanistan. Moreover, Afghanistan lacks the local distribution networks necessary to deliver gas from large transmission pipelines to small consumers, such as CNG filling stations. The only operational local distribution network in Afghanistan is in Sheberghan and it would require significant refurbishment if it were to be used to safely supply natural gas throughout the city.</blockquote>

<blockquote>Finally, it appears that the cost of converting a gasoline-powered car to run on CNG may be prohibitive for the average Afghan. TFBSO’s contractor, CADG, states that conversion to CNG costs $700 per car; other sources estimate that it costs up to $800.18. According to the World Bank, the average annual income in Afghanistan is $690. This may explain why the U.S. government paid for the conversion of over 120 Afghan vehicles to CNG so that they could use the filling station: ordinary Afghans simply couldn’t afford to do it. Not surprisingly, SIGAR found no evidence that any other vehicles were converted to CNG.</blockquote>

The SIGAR chief’s other points about the culvert grills and schools without teachers are indicative of a “Build” program that could not be verified effectively perhaps because USAID employees could not get outside of Kabul very often safely or spend the night outside the wire. The Kajaki dam problem IIRC required a massive British effort to get the replacement generator to the site but then lacked the concrete to install it. It also left transmission lines unsecured to Kandahar that were likely to be sabotaged by the Taliban which would call into question the long term viability of funds spent.

The “Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War” study of the National Defense University indicates very high costs in the latter part of OEF vs. its early years. From OEF’s start through FY 2008 when President Bush left office, annual OEF costs averaged just $23.57 billion. From FY 2009 to the present they have averaged $82.71 billion. Excluding “Surge” and drawdown costs, this latter increase appears indicative of deployed defense contractor and increased “Build” costs. To the jaded, this might appear an effort to substitute contractors and aid instead of combat forces so we can say we have fewer deployed troops.

Jeff Goodson

Thu, 11/19/2015 - 12:53am

How timely.

For a brief rackup of the many problems with the work of SIGAR in assessing Afghan development projects--starting with the myth of the $43-million CNG fueling station--please see the following link to an article published 18 November 2015 in War on the Rocks:…

SIGAR is to be congratulated for catching bad guys with their hands in the till. But when it comes to assessing development projects, SIGAR is part of the problem--not part of the solution.

Jeff Goodson