Afghan War Marked By Incompetence, Misrepresentation, And Outright Lies
A new report details the extent to which the eighteen-year Afghanistan War has been marked by mistakes, and lies by the government to cover-up the fact that we went to war without a clear understanding of what we were doing.
The Washington Post is out with the result of a long investigation of the eighteen-year-old war in Afghanistan and its origins, and the verdict is not favorable toward any of the three Presidential Administrations that have presided over it. Perhaps the most important is the fact that the government has consistently been misrepresenting underlying facts about the war, it’s progress, and the prospect that American forces will be withdrawn at any point in the foreseeable future:
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.
The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.
In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.
With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”
Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.
Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.
Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.
“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”
The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
The documents and the Post’s report are far too lengthy to fairly excerpt, so I recommend that you read them on your own. As it stands, it’s worth noting that the Post had to go to Court to gain access to these reports, and its efforts to get the complete story are still being stymied by the Pentagon and the only logical reason for them to block public access to information that makes clear the extent to which this eighteen-year war has been marred by miscalculation, incompetence, and outright misrepresentation of what was happening on the ground.
Like Dave Schuler in his post about this report, I am not surprised at the findings of the Post’s investigation. It’s been apparent from the start that our policy in the war was marked by some of the same mistakes that the Soviets made in their invasion and attempted occupation that began in 1979 and lasted until 1989 as well as the mistakes and misrepresentations made by the Pentagon and the Johnson and Nixon Administration during the Vietnam War. Much like Vietnam, we went into the country with very little understanding of the situation on the ground or the history of the area(s) that we were invading, that we failed to have a coherent exit strategy or any idea what success or failure would look like, and almost no knowledge of the various forces, tribal and otherwise, that held sway over the country. These failures became even more apparent later on, especially after President Obama took office and our strategy shifted from a counter-terrorism operation aimed at finding and wiping out the remaining elements of al Qaeda to a counter-insurgency operation designed to uphold an often corrupt central government that at times has had very little control of the country outside of major cities such as Kabul and Kandahar. The result is what we have now, a seemingly never-ending war from which the United States cannot extract itself.
We’ve been fighting this war for 18 years now and we don’t seem any closer to the point where it can be said to be “over” than we were in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. The difference, of course, is that the strategy regarding the war and the reasons we are there have shifted significantly over the past 18 years. What started out to be a military operation to take out the plotters behind the September 11th attacks has morphed into an effort to keep a central government that seems unable to defend itself in power and put our thumb on the scale in what amounts to civil war.
This is not what the American people signed up for, and the fact that the government is seeking to suppress information vital to determining whether there is any value in what we’re doing is outrageous. Afghanistan is of no real strategic value to the United States and our continued presence there serves no useful purpose other than to allow the troops to continue to be a target for Taliban and other forces fighting against the government in Kabul. There comes a time when we just have to tell the Afghans that we can’t do this anymore, that they are going to either have to either resolve their differences at the peace table, or continue fighting a civil war that, effectively, has been going on since the Soviet occupation in 1979, and there seems to be no better time than the present. We’ve done all we can in Afghanistan and more, it’s time to come home.