Afghan War plagued by ‘mendacity and hubris,' inspector general tells Congress
By CRAIG WHITLOCK | The Washington Post | Published: January 16, 2020
WASHINGTON — The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction told Congress on Wednesday that U.S. officials have routinely lied to the public during the 18-year war by exaggerating progress reports and inflating statistics to create a false appearance of success.
"There's an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue ... mendacity and hubris," John Sopko said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The problem is there is a disincentive, really, to tell the truth. We have created an incentive to almost require people to lie."
As an example, Sopko said U.S. officials have lied in the past about the number of Afghan children enrolled in schools — a key marker of progress touted by the Obama administration — even though they "knew the data was bad." He also said U.S. officials falsely claimed major gains in Afghan life expectancy that were statistically impossible to achieve.
In addition, Sopko criticized the Trump administration for classifying information that shows the war is going badly, including data on Afghan troop casualties and assessments of the Taliban's strength.
"When we talk about mendacity, when we talk about lying, it's not just lying about a particular program. It's lying by omissions," he said. "It turns out that everything that is bad news has been classified for the last few years."
Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, in 2008 to investigate contractual fraud and waste in the war zone. Since 2001, the United States has spent more than $132 billion to modernize the country — more than it spent, adjusted for inflation, to rebuild Europe after World War II.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee summoned Sopko to testify in response to a series of articles published last month in The Washington Post that revealed how senior U.S. officials did not tell the truth about the war, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the conflict had become unwinnable.
Known as The Afghanistan Papers, The Post's series was based on hundreds of confidential interviews that SIGAR conducted with key figures in the war. The inspector general had drawn on the interviews to publish seven reports — called "Lessons Learned" — about policy failures in Afghanistan. But the reports left out the harshest and most frank criticisms and omitted the names of more than 90% of the people who were interviewed for the project.
The Post obtained about 2,000 pages of unpublished notes and transcripts from the interviews under the Freedom of Information Act, but it had to sue SIGAR in federal court — twice — to force it to release the records.
Several lawmakers said they were shocked by revelations in The Afghanistan Papers, including blunt admissions from generals, ambassadors and White House officials that they didn't know what they were doing in Afghanistan and that the war strategy was fundamentally flawed.
"The documents, and The Post's excellent reporting, helped fill in some significant gaps in our understanding of the U.S. war in Afghanistan," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee chairman. "It's a damning record. It underscores the lack of honest public conversation between the American people and their leaders about what we were doing in Afghanistan."
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the panel, said The Afghanistan Papers served "as a sober reminder of our past mistakes and underscores the importance of the Trump administration's efforts to end the war."
Sopko defended his agency's attempts to withhold the documents, saying he had an obligation to protect the identities of people who criticized the war and wanted to remain anonymous.
"These people who spoke to us risked a lot," he said. "You know what this town is like, you know what it's like if somebody bad-mouths their old boss or whatever."
At the same time, under questioning from lawmakers, Sopko acknowledged that there was no evidence that anyone had faced retribution since The Post published its series last month. "There is no retaliation that we know of," he said.