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Before pullout, U.S. government watchdog warned Afghan air force would collapse

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Months before President Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, a government watchdog sounded an alarm. The Afghan air force was not ready to stand alone. Without continued American support, it would collapse. That is a takeaway from a newly declassified report. It was sent to the Department of Defense last January by John Sopko. He's a special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. He joins us now. Welcome back.

JOHN SOPKO: It's a pleasure to be here. Good morning.

MARTINEZ: Now, how crucial were Afghanistan's air forces in the fight against the Taliban?

SOPKO: It was probably one of the most important elements of the Afghan defense. Without the air force, they couldn't supply their own troops because the Taliban had cut all the roads. And it was extremely important for close air support to support this - Afghan soldiers in the field.

MARTINEZ: And they weren't alone. The U.S. was supporting them. How reliant were they on U.S. support, the air force?

SOPKO: Well, they were especially reliant on the U.S. contractors and enablers or trainers or mechanics, the people who kept the aircraft up and running. And we had been warning the Defense Department that without those contractors - and remember, that was part of the peace negotiation or withdrawal negotiation that all contractors, U.S. contractors, had to leave. And if that happened, we predicted the air force would collapse within a matter of months.

MARTINEZ: Now, in your report, you note that the Pentagon was trying to change that, to make the Afghan air force more self-reliant in the long term.

SOPKO: Yes, but even the air force admitted to us it would take about approximately 10 more years to do that.

MARTINEZ: Ten more years from when you issued the report. So...

SOPKO: In the 2030s, yeah. I mean, that hadn't gotten any better for years. I mean, we've been reporting this problem since 2013, the overreliance and the inability of the air force to stand on its own.

MARTINEZ: What did you wind up recommending? Because, yeah, you mentioned how we've known that since 2013, you put that in your report in January. So what did you recommend?

SOPKO: Well, we recommended that the Defense Department come up with a plan and implement a plan to support the air force, the Afghan air force. And obviously, as events unfolded, they did not. So the air force basically collapsed. So you have to ask the Defense Department why they didn't do that, but they knew, at least in January. But going back to 2013 that without U.S. and contractors and enablers, the air force would collapse. And they knew that if the air force collapsed, the Afghan military would collapse.

MARTINEZ: Well, John, you mention how, you know, we got to ask the Defense Department about why they didn't capitalize on your recommendations, but I'm wondering what your feel for it is. I mean, did they drop the ball? Did they just flat out refuse and say no, or we'll figure it out as we go?

SOPKO: No. I mean, the way the bureaucracy works is nobody ever says, no. They just don't do it. And that's the frustrating thing. And this is only one of many reports that are still classified where we sounded warnings to the Defense Department or to state or USAID that if they didn't take into account what was happening on the ground, the Afghan government would collapse. And Congress has asked us actually to look at that right now. So we've got a number of jobs doing right now looking at why the government collapsed, why the military collapsed, how many weapons and materiel were left and whether money was stolen from the U.S. government right up to the collapse in August.

MARTINEZ: I was wondering, though, John, so you mentioned how you realized all this back in January, that that effort to make them more independent wasn't working. Could it be that, you know, one president was transitioning out, another was transitioning in and the timing of all that somehow, you know, made it a bad spot to be in?

SOPKO: Well, you'll have to ask them. You know, we just report the facts as we see them. Yes, there was a transition, but this had been a problem that - our own Air Force had alerted the Pentagon to serious problems with this. So I can't really answer that question. You'll have to ask the White House. You'll have to ask National Security Council or ask the Defense Department. We just reported it, and we kept reporting, kept ringing the bell that you had problems. And if you didn't face up to them and do something, and we gave specific recommendations, this - you would have a collapse of the Afghan military.

MARTINEZ: John Sopko is special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. John, thanks.

SOPKO: Thank you very much, a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.