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Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testifies before the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 25, 2017.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testifies before the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — An independent watchdog appointed by Congress warned Thursday that the United States could become embroiled in another complex conflict like Afghanistan, just weeks before American forces are expected to complete their withdrawal from the country after nearly 20 years of war there.

“Don't believe what you're told by the generals, or the ambassadors, or people in the administration saying we're never going to do this again. That's exactly what we said after Vietnam. We're never going to do this again. And lo and behold we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do it again,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said at a Defense Writers Group discussion with reporters.

Sopko made the comments as the SIGAR office released its latest quarterly report, which provided a grim outlook on the state of Afghanistan as the U.S. military ends its involvement in the war by Aug. 31. Since Congress created SIGAR in the fiscal 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, the inspector general has detailed years of waste, corruption and fraud.

Afghanistan “remains poor, aid-dependent, and conflict-affected, with any potential economic growth in the short term further limited by the lingering effects of the [coronavirus] pandemic,” according to the report.

Despite the United States funneling more than $837 billion into the country for reconstruction efforts, the report also said Afghanistan could face an “existential crisis” after a steady uptick in Taliban attacks that began last year.

Each quarter since the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace deal in February 2020 has shown a marked increase in enemy attacks compared to the same periods in previous years, the report concluded. Between March and May, enemy forces conducted nearly 10,400 attacks — 1,000 more than were recorded during that time the previous year and 3,000 more than the same time in 2019, the report said.

Since the Taliban launched its most recent offensive in May, the Afghan army has “appeared surprised and unready, and is now on its back foot,” Sopko told reporters.

He said the United States must learn from the nearly two decades of war in the country.

“Afghanistan was the largest redevelopment program ever in the history of the United States. Bigger than rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II. … What we have identified in Afghanistan is relevant in other places of the world,” Sopko said Thursday.

The inspector general also insisted his office’s work will continue without boots on the ground in Afghanistan, though it could be limited. With a reduced U.S. military force in Afghanistan since 2014, he said satellite data and other technology, as well as communication with civil society organizations, has been key to his work.

Sopko said his preference was to be “present” in the country to rely on their office’s extensive informant network, but “we still can do the work outside of Afghanistan, because a lot of our work is paper. And particularly, we follow the money from the contracting here to where it goes.”

SIGAR will continue to be able to access the Afghan government’s computer systems and paperwork for now, he said.

“We've had access in the past. And as far as I know, we still have that access. It's kind of clunky now, because we had access through other agencies to these records. Having direct access would be very, very useful for us,” Sopko said.

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