Current and future attempts by the United States to use its military might abroad could very well meet the same fate as the country's nearly two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, a U.S. government watchdog warned, citing the repeated failure of top officials to learn from their mistakes.
U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko unleashed the blunt assessment Thursday during a discussion with reporters, accusing wave after wave of top-ranking defense officials and diplomats of lying to themselves, as well as the American public.
"We exaggerated, overexaggerated," Sopko said in response to a question from VOA. "Our generals did. Our ambassadors did. All of our officials did, to go to Congress and the American people about 'We're just turning the corner.'
"We turned the corner so much, we did 360 degrees," he said. "We're like a top."
Sopko, speaking to the Defense Writers Group, said that while there were "multiple reasons" the U.S. failed to create a more effective and cohesive Afghan military, some of it was "this hubris that we can somehow take a country that was desolate in 2001 and turn it into little Norway."
But another key factor, he said, was "mendacity."
Top ranking U.S. military leaders "knew how bad the Afghan military was," Sopko said, adding that they tried to keep such problems hidden.
'We changed the goal posts'
"Every time we had a problem with the Afghan military, we changed the goal posts," he said. "The U.S. military changed the goal posts and made it easier to show success. And then, finally, when they couldn't even do that, they classified the assessment tool."
Sopko cautioned that part of the problem with setting up Afghanistan for success also hinged on Washington's refusal over almost 20 years to plan for long-term success.
"We've highlighted time and again we had unrealistic timelines for all of our work," he said, pointing to a series of reports by his office during the past 12 years.
"Four-star generals, four-star military, four-star ambassadors forced the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] to try to show success in short timelines, which they themselves knew were never going to work," Sopko said. "These short timelines, which have no basis in reality except the political reality of the appropriations cycle or whatever, whatever is popular at the moment, are dooming us to failure.
"That unfortunately is a problem not just with Afghanistan," he added. "I think you find it in other countries where we've gone in."
Sopko's critique Thursday came just after the release of his office's most recent report, which described the situation on the ground in Afghanistan as "bleak" and warned that the Afghan government could be facing an "existential crisis."
Pentagon and State Department officials did not immediately respond to Sopko's criticism, but they repeatedly have defended U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Last week, America's most senior military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley, said Afghan forces were well trained and well equipped, even though the Taliban had "strategic momentum."
Milley also has defended the U.S. model known as “train, advise and assist,” calling it "the best approach" to counterterrorism.