Donald Trump will need to confront the continued instability and corruption in Afghanistan as well as a resilient Taliban insurgency that continues to challenge Afghan military and police forces, according to the special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction.
John Sopko, the U.S. government's special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, offered a bleak assessment of the security situation and rebuilding efforts in the war-torn country on Wednesday during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, admitting that little has improved in Afghanistan over the past two years despite billions of dollars in investments from the United States.
The special inspector general unveiled a list of high-risk challenges facing the new administration in Afghanistan, including the capacity and capabilities of Afghan security forces, corruption, sustainability, on-budget assistance, counter-narcotics, contract management, general oversight, and planning and strategy.
Failure in any one of these eight areas, Sopko said Wednesday, could "fatally undermine the reconstruction mission in Afghanistan."
The special inspector general identified corruption and poor leadership of the Afghan military and police forces as the root cause of the persisting insecurity in Afghanistan. He pointed to the tens of thousands of U.S. taxpayer-funded "ghost soldiers," as well as evidence of Afghan forces selling U.S.-bought weapons and fuel for profit.
"Afghan commanders often pocket the paychecks of ghost soldiers for whom the U.S. is paying the salary," Sopko said. "The number of ghost soldiers is not insignificant. It likely reaches into the tens of thousands of soldiers and police."
"[Corruption] is so bad that there is evidence that the Taliban have instructed their field commanders to simply purchase U.S.-supplied weapons, fuel, and ammunition from the Afghan government because it is both easier and less expensive for the insurgents to do so," he continued.
"There are reports that when fuel finally reaches the frontlines in Afghanistan, that some Afghan commanders refuse to use it, refuse to go on patrols, so they can save the fuel which they then can sell on the open market," Sopko said.
The special inspector general has said as much as 50 percent of U.S.-purchased fuel is siphoned off and sold for profits.
"Our new administration and Congress should ask: Is it finally time to stop talking about combatting corruption and time for the Afghan government to start prosecuting senior officials who are either corrupt or feel they are above the law?" Sopko said.
The Taliban has continued to launch attacks and seize territory in Afghanistan, as U.S. and allied forces have withdrawn troops from the country. President Obama last year decelerated his planned drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, leaving some 8,400 service members in the country through the end of his term. Gens. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, have both characterized the security situation as a "stalemate."
The Taliban on Tuesday set off two large bombs near a government compound in Kabul, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens. The attack was among 56 security incidents that occurred over the last two days in 22 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, according to the special inspector general.
The Pentagon's latest assessment of the Afghan military and police forces evaluated them as effective in repelling insurgents in key population areas and retaking territory seized by the Taliban. But Sopko on Wednesday offered a negative take on the assessment, saying that the Afghan forces are "basically playing whack-a-mole, following the Taliban around Afghanistan and retaking territory that was lost."
"The DoD report reiterates this point by noting that the vast majority of the Afghan national army has little offensive capability," the special inspector general said. "So, the best spin the Afghan security forces can put on their activities in 2016 is that they were able to retake strategic areas that had temporarily been lost to the Taliban. So, we're defining success as the absence of failure. At a minimum, they are playing defense and are not taking the fight to the Taliban."
The United States announced this week that it will send 300 Marines to Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, in order to train, advise, and assist Afghan government forces fighting Taliban insurgents. Obama marked the end of combat in Afghanistan in December 2014.
Trump has not yet outlined a strategy for Afghanistan, which after 15 years has stretched to America's longest war, but has pledged to end "nation building" by the United States. Under the new administration, the Pentagon will likely be led by retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who faces a confirmation hearing to become defense secretary this week.
The United States has spent $115 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan and is expected to contribute between $5 and $6 billion annually through 2020.
Sopko, who was appointed to the inspector general post in 2012 by President Obama, urged the incoming administration to "conduct a thorough assessment of resources and personnel to ensure they are sufficient to meet our military, law enforcement, and civilian objectives in Afghanistan." He also recommended the new government work with Afghan and coalition allies to develop a "new and better strategy" in Afghanistan that avoids failures revealed by his office and other oversight investigations.
"Fifteen years in, there is no reason we should be seeing the problems we continue to witness and document in the nearly 250 reports my little office has released," Sopko said. "My hope, and the hope of my staff, is that the high-risk report we are issuing today and the examples it provides will help guide Congress and the Trump administration as we move into 2017 to ensure a strong, better, and more effective reconstruction effort in what has become America's longest war."