A CH-47 Chinook from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division is loaded onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 28, 2021.

A CH-47 Chinook from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division is loaded onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 28, 2021. (Alexander Burnett/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — An independent watchdog who investigated U.S. military operations in Afghanistan said Tuesday that American forces left behind billions of dollars in weapons, vehicles and equipment and the Taliban has learned how to use some of it, including aircraft.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, or SIGAR, released a report outlining U.S. failures in the country after 20 years of war there. The report includes reasons why Afghan government forces fell so quickly to the Taliban when the United States withdrew in 2021 and states roughly $7.2 billion in American military equipment was left in Afghanistan.

The equipment includes at least 78 aircraft worth more than $920 million, 40,000 vehicles, more than 300,000 weapons and thousands of air-to-ground munitions.

“Some of [the equipment] was destroyed, a lot of it wasn’t,” Sopko told reporters Tuesday in Washington. “Was I surprised? No. [The Pentagon] had a horrible system in place to keep track of weapons and where they were and how they were maintained.”

Sopko, the SIGAR since 2012, said some of the U.S. equipment left behind was “sophisticated” — such as night vision and communications hardware — and Taliban militants have probably learned how to operate some of it by now.

“That’s a concern,” he said. “We have seen and we have picked up intelligence that the Taliban are actually flying some of the helicopters and some of the planes. … But it’s a concern. That’s a lot of hardware and a lot of weaponry.”

A preliminary version of the SIGAR report, titled “Why the Afghan Security Forces Collapsed,” was given to Congress last year and concludes there were several reasons why the Afghan government fell so quickly — such as government corruption, poor planning and low morale among Afghan troops, especially when the U.S. said it would pull out.

“This is like the house of cards. When you pull one card, you can see the next one going. Or maybe dominoes is the [analogy],” Sopko said. “When you pulled out the support for the Afghan government, the morale started to crater.”

The report said Afghanistan was a failure mainly because the United States “lacked the political will to dedicate the time and resources necessary to reconstruct an entire security sector in a war-torn and impoverished country.”

“The U.S. and Afghan governments share in the blame. Neither side appeared to have the political commitment to doing what it would take to address the challenges, including devoting the time and resources necessary to develop a professional [Afghan military], a process that takes decades,” the report reads. “The February 2020 decision to commit to a rapid U.S. military withdrawal sealed the [Afghan military’s] fate.”

SIGAR was created by Congress in 2008 and has issued dozens of reports in the past 15 years on American efforts in the war-scarred country. Though American involvement in Afghanistan has ended, the office will continue to exist until its funding pipeline falls below $250 million. Once that happens, it will terminate in six months. SIGAR said it had about $2.2 billion at the start of 2023.

Sopko said Tuesday that the Pentagon and State Department weren’t entirely cooperative with the SIGAR review. Rebecca Zimmerman, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, wrote in a letter to SIGAR that it disagreed with the report’s claim that there was a lack of communication between the U.S. and Afghanistan.

Further, the Pentagon has conducted its own investigation into the failures of Afghanistan, which has not been made public yet.

“We did conduct an internal classified lessons-learned report. That report remains classified and I don’t have any updates right now in terms of potential releasability,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, told reporters Tuesday.

The U.S. made its exit from Afghanistan in August 2021 after several months of preparations. The quick collapse of the Afghan government has led to numerous questions about what went wrong and is a subject of scrutiny by House Republicans.

When President Joe Biden announced the U.S. pullout in early 2021, he said the military had achieved its purpose there and flatly refused to pass the war on to another president. Former President Donald Trump had wanted to withdraw even sooner, first in late 2020 and then by May 2021 before he lost to Biden in the presidential election.

Trump’s administration negotiated with the Taliban for an exit and the result was the Doha Agreement in February 2020. Negotiations for that pact did not include the Afghan government, an omission that some experts have said demoralized Afghan leaders and troops and contributed to the collapse.

The SIGAR report comes as the United States provides ongoing military support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. Biden’s administration has pledged more than $30 billion in weapons and equipment since the war started a year ago. It has raised concerns in Congress about oversight and tracking whether the U.S. weapons and equipment are being used as intended.

“We take accountability of U.S. assistance to Ukraine very seriously. We have an active and proactive whole-of-government system to prevent the illicit diversion of weapons in Eastern Europe,” Ryder said. “To this date, we have not seen any evidence of any type of widespread diversion of any of the assistance that we provided.”

Ryder said there’s a “robust” system to track all weapons systems when they enter Ukraine, and personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv keep tabs on them through physical and virtual inspections.

If there are lessons from Afghanistan that can be applied to the situation in Ukraine, Sopko said he wasn’t confident that they will be.

“I’m not super optimistic that we are going to learn our lesson,” he said. “I’ve been in Washington since 1982 and learning lessons is not in our DNA in the United States, unfortunately.”

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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