Afghanistan Reconstruction: Fact vs. Fantasy

May 6, 2015

John F. Sopko , Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City , May 5, 2015

Full Speech

Conclusion

For both humanitarian and national-security reasons, the U.S. mission to reconstruct Afghanistan is critical. And with $15 billion currently awaiting disbursement, with billions more to follow, there is both need to improve the effectiveness of the effort, and time to make a difference in the outcome.

We must not kid ourselves about Afghanistan. It will be a long struggle. Defeating a determined insurgency, improving health and education, altering attitudes toward women, reducing corruption, and building governmental competence are not casual, short-term undertakings. Impatience driven by temperament, election cycles, or fiscal-year budgeting can only impede progress.

We can also safely say that the struggle in Afghanistan won’t be shortened, much less won, by official happy talk and cheerleader-style press releases. Improving the likelihood of mission success requires, as a start, accurate, verifiable, and pertinent data-accompanied by a recognition that some key indicators require subjective evaluation by experienced and independent observers in the field. Let me emphasize the independence issue. Poor data and disregard of nonquantitative assessments that is biased by self-interest and turf protection can only lead to unrealistic judgments, unjustified hopes, and outright fantasies with no link to reality.

The 19th-century American humorist Josh Billings said, in the manner of Socrates, “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.”[28] SIGAR’s clinical examination of American reconstruction operations in Afghanistan has persuaded me that we know a lot more than nothing, but a lot less than we think. Budgeting, planning, oversight, course corrections, and decisions to adjust the targets, duration, and intensity of U.S. efforts there all require reliable information. At the moment, that is all too often a scarce commodity and, accordingly, our programs as we go forward may be based more upon fantasy than reality.

SIGAR will press on in the years ahead to carry out its assignment of pinning down facts; calling out fluff, felonies, and fantasies; and recommending improvements. We welcome your interest and support in that mission, as I welcome your comments and questions. Thank you.

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