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been misrepresenting underlying facts about the war, it’s progress, and the prospect that American forces will be withdrawn at any point in the foreseeable future: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 They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.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.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    WAPO refers to this as the “Afghan Papers” which highlights the close parallel with the Pentagon Papers. The parallels with Vietnam are appalling. Our elites learn nothing.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    which is why the post I wrote on this topic was titled “Lessons Not Learned”.

  3. Teve says:

    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.

    Damn Obama.

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  4. Scott says:

    @gVOR08:

    Our elites learn nothing

    I don’t let the American people off the hook either. We haven’t learned anything. I remember after the Gulf War I how everybody was cheering that we finally got over Vietnam and that the Vietnam War Syndrome was gone. That hubris led us to Afghanistan and Gulf War II.

    The only way to cure this pathology is to make it painful to Americans. Since it doesn’t take a national mobilization to go to war (especially these regional ones), the best pain would come from taxing the people to pay for it. I wonder how things would be different if taxes were levied to pay for the $6.4T we’ve spent. I bet there would be less casualness about it.

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  5. Robert C says:

    American culture with its “City on the Hill” mystique ignored the truism that Afghanistan is “ the graveyard of empires”.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    … we didn’t know what we were doing,

    No one should be surprised at this. It was evident at the time Bush authorized military action in Afghanistan that it was a fool’s errand that would fail. Simply looking at the British and Soviet imperial experience in Afghanistan was enough.

  7. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    One of my biggest beefs with Obama was Afghanistan…and his “surge”.
    Having said that…it’s not like Bush/Cheney left him a decent hand to play.
    Still…that’s no excuse.

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  8. Teve says:

    I wonder how things would be different if taxes were levied to pay for the $6.4T we’ve spent. I bet there would be less casualness about it.

    6 trillion bucks divided among 150 million households is $40,000 per household.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    With all this in mind – and no, none of it surprised me – I’d argue that my seemingly more brutal response of tactical nuclear strikes on routes in and out of Afghanistan with particular focus on the opium routes and passes leading into Pakistan – would have been a vast improvement.

    It was absolutely required of us to respond forcefully. It was not incumbent on us to try and remake Afghanistan and that would only have been possible if we’d gone in in far greater numbers with an open-ended commitment and a willingness to be very tough indeed.

    The Pashtun are raiders not invaders. They’d have understood a massive retaliatory raid. We’d have left large areas uninhabitable, a reminder to them, a reminder they could not help but heed.
    By half-assing an occupation we played their game. Now we have lost 2300 soldiers, wounded ten times that many, spent a trillion dollars not counting the VA, exposed yet again the dishonesty of the highest levels of the Defense Department, and frankly have once again shown the world the self-imposed limits of American power.

    Our posture over the last several decades has been that when attacked we will immediately shoot ourselves in the foot then limp around leaking blood and dollars until we finally run away, run away. All so that we won’t look bad. Because this is such a great look for us.

    Ask yourself the question: which would have been worse for US security and power? A feckless occupation that will inevitably end with a whimpering withdrawal after 18 years of losses and expenditures? Or the opprobrium we’d have endured for using nukes while losing exactly zero soldiers and at a cost of pennies?

    This is about power. Better for a superpower to be thought brutal when there is ample justification, than to be seen as weak and ineffective in the face of that justification. Proportionality favors the weak, it is not a tool of the powerful.

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  10. Kit says:

    Good article, Doug, but I don’t think you really stuck that landing:

    We’ve done all we can in Afghanistan

    Looking at the number of Afghanis killed, we might not have done all we could, but as a percentage of their population this looks to have easily breezed past the American Civil War.

    Others have pointed out the costs in dollars. Why can we piss away this sort of money, but think it’s beyond our means when a Warren tosses around these sort of figures with talks of transforming our country for the good of its people?

    Lastly, freedom of speech is necessary so that we can properly govern ourselves—people need to know the truth. What does it say when such critical information is withheld by the government?

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  11. Kathy says:

    If you look at wars of conquest throughout history, the norm is a rebellious populace in the conquered region years, decades, and even centuries afterwards.

    Some ancient empires got away with it by 1) admitting local elites to the imperial power structure, 2) ruthlessly suppressing rebellions, but not so ruthlessly as to cause lingering resentment (compare Rome to Assyria for example), and 3) occasionally dumping vast amounts of cash for infrastructure projects like roads and aqueducts (which often came from newer conquests).

    Modern empires have had a harder time. Note almost all colonies the western powers held are now independent. Note, too, the long-running sores of ehtno-nationalist enclaves in places like Tibet, Kashmir, Kurdistan, etc, and even without violence in Barcelona, Scotland, etc.

    Surprisingly, Bush the younger had it right before going into Afghanistan: Nation-building is not a good idea.

  12. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Arguing for war crimes is not a good look.

    The Pashtun are raiders not invaders. They’d have understood a massive retaliatory raid. We’d have left large areas uninhabitable, a reminder to them, a reminder they could not help but heed.

    Arguing for war crimes out of a belief in misguided pop psychology is even worse.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @drj:
    What war crime would that be? We’d have killed far, far fewer Afghans than we ended up doing. As for pop psychology, the opinions of average Afghans is irrelevant. The leadership would have understood perfectly well.

    Does it not concern you in your condescension that we slaughtered far more people – theirs and ours – because of this notion of proportionality? How is the less-murderous approach a war crime while an 18 year fiasco is not?

  14. Kathy says:

    I wonder what Daniel Ellsberg thinks about this.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    With all this in mind – and no, none of it surprised me – I’d argue that my seemingly more brutal response of tactical nuclear strikes on routes in and out of Afghanistan with particular focus on the opium routes and passes leading into Pakistan – would have been a vast improvement.

    Afghanistan is a nuisance at best to a nation of 300 million. Despite 9/11, etc., they have not and can not do more than pinpricks. It’s a nuisance we don’t have a solution to, but it’s a nuisance.

    And, at the moment, there is still a strong aversion to anyone — us or our enemies — using nuclear weapons. Eroding that aversion would make America much less safe. It’s a step down the path towards an existential threat, or a severe body blow.

    And it would infuriate our allies downwind. Allies whose cooperation we require on a host of issues.

    And there would be no stopping a large number of countries from pursuing nuclear weapons as fast as they can, as a deterrent to us.

    To cure an itch on the back of your hand, you are willing to open Pandora’s Box.

    It’s a terrible idea before we even get to the morality of it.

    ——
    We do have a variety of conventional weapons that could likely close mountain passes…

  16. grumpy realist says:

    At least in Vietnam there was an obvious “other side”. In Afghanistan it looks like we have placed ourselves in the middle of a N-sided dogfight and tried to get them to play nicely with each other.

    We could have built a 50-foot-high wall around the entire country for the money we have squandered on this “America’s Little Project.” And it would have been more successful.

  17. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We’d have left large areas uninhabitable

    Good luck killing fewer people that way. Apart from the initial attacks, how would you prevent mass starvation after contaminating vast swathes of agricultural land and cutting off most major logistical arteries?

    Also: let’s make the US an international pariah by using nukes and giving Afghan babies cancer.

    You obviously haven’t thought this through.

  18. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Forget about proportionality. Nukes are fundamentally different than all other types of modern warfare and escalating to nuclear weapons is a hugely dangerous path and precedent. The world has recoiled from their use since WWII and if you think China and Russia wouldn’t see our dropping them in Afghanistan as sufficient reason to use their own in regional conflicts you’re crazy. Not to mention what India and Pakistan might decide to do.

    Also, US “tactical” nukes are fairly limited-we mostly abandoned them a few decades ago in favor of nation-busters for deterrence. We have them but they are definitely on the old side by our standards. Trump actually changed that and we are starting to roll out newer “non-strategic” nukes now. I’m not sure that’s a good idea but we didn’t have them then anyway.

    That said, I don’t believe in Powell’s “you break it you buy it” philosophy either. I’d have gone in and wiped out as much of the Taliban as possible, wiped out Al-Qaeda training camps, then simply left after a few months noting that if Afghanistan/Taliban wanted to invite Al-Qaeda back we’d be back too. The Taliban are (or were) far more interested in ruling Afghanistan that international terrorism.

    Nation building is stupid (and not something we are particularly good at). Shock and awe and breaking things? Now that we are good at.

  19. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Everyone on the entire continent of Asia…which is quite large!…would have gone apeshit. Including several other nuclear powers, if I’m not mistaken.

    This is Tom Clancy bullshit, and you know it.

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  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:

    Eroding that aversion would make America much less safe.

    That is certainly conventional wisdom, and it makes some sense, but it’s wrong. Only three nuclear powers are able/motivated to use nukes against us or our interests: Russia, China and North Korea. Which of those is deterred by our fine example of forgoing nukes? They are deterred by the threat that we may well use nukes if necessary.

    Nukes are just bombs. Big bombs, but just bombs. It strikes me as silly that we’d be OK with dropping a conventional one megaton bomb (if it were feasible) but we draw the line at a nuke with the same explosive power.

    @drj:
    The land area of Afghanistan is ~250,000 square miles. Pretty sure in a country as uninhabited as most of Afghanistan we could target say 10 nukes that might in all annihilate and irradiate 1000 square miles containing far fewer people than we’ve blown up with jets, drones, artillery, gunships and infantrymen.

    Would there be radiation deaths? Yes, but not nearly as many as you imagine. We aren’t talking cities but mountain passes. The geography limits not only the immediate casualties but, if we used air blast, would limit the radioactive particulates. Why would there be starvation? I’m not talking about targeting agriculture which, as I’m sure you know, does not take place in rocky mountain passes.

    IOW, yeah, I did think it through. Years ago. Before we lost 2300 of our people and a civilian toll estimated at 147,000 accomplishing absolutely fuck-all. Let me ask you something. If you’d been presented with the following scenarios:

    1) We spend a trillion+ dollars, kill 147,000 civilians, lose 2300 of our own plus 20,000 casualties and in the end slink off tail between our legs.

    Or,

    2) We spend pocket change, kill say 50,000 Afghans all-in, lose none of ours and walk away prepared to rinse and repeat if the Taliban decide again to play host to ISIS.

    Which would you choose? No fantasy, reality, what’s your choice? And are you going to explain to all those dead that we had to let them die in order to look good on the world stage?

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:

    Not to mention what India and Pakistan might decide to do.

    India and Pakistan are deterred by each other, not by our example.

    @Lit3Bolt:

    Everyone on the entire continent of Asia…which is quite large!…would have gone apeshit.

    And?

  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    Stop being mesmerized by the word ‘nuclear.’ We killed more Japanese with conventional fire-bombing than we did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The moral issue there was not the means by which we killed, but the choice to slaughter civilians in cities. By focusing on the sort of explosive used we obscure the moral questions involved. What’s the takeaway supposed to be? That it was fine to burn children alive in their homes with napalm but morally reprehensible to do it with a uranium bomb?

    It’s not about how we kill people, but whether we should kill people. Want to make it all about nukes? Then the preferred, humane way of dealing with Japan would have been what, invasion? With GI’s shooting their way through Japanese cities? Or maybe an embargo that would have starved millions – the vulnerable, not the soldiers?

    You cannot make war not horrible. It is horrible. It is always horrible. There are always orphans, always widows, always grieving parents. It’s the most awful thing that humans do to each other. By saying ‘no nukes’ you’re trying to make war less horrible. You’re trying to set some limits. But a war with limits is a war without end. See: Vietnam and its sequels.

    You (collectively) are adopting a moral pose which is immoral at its core. More deaths – ours and theirs – so that we can claim a moral high ground and set an example that impresses absolutely no one. It’s virtue signaling. It’s a refusal to look the horror of war squarely in the face.

    In his day Tecumseh Sherman was abused for the march through Georgia (and South Carolina). It offended the right-thinking people of the day. But he broke the Confederacy, advanced the end of the war, preserved the Union and freed millions in bondage. Had we decided on proportionality we’d be in year 159 of the Civil War.

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  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    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.

    This is untrue. The war was never winnable at the level of commitment we were willing to make. It was obvious from the beginning when we sent in teams of CIA with pallets of cash with which to buy the loyalties of warlords aligned with the Northern Alliance and planeloads of arms for them to fight with.

    Ever hear the saying, “You can’t buy an Afghan, but you sure can rent one.” Look what we got for our investments in Afghanistan during the ’80s.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: To the extent that you would acknowledge it as a war crime–which I would place at about -10%–the whole

    tactical nuclear strikes on routes in and out of Afghanistan with particular focus on the opium routes and passes leading into Pakistan [emphasis added]

    strikes me as problematic, especially as closing routes into Pakistan would have been an act of war against Pakistan and drug trafficking is not normally considered a casus belli.

    Now, I’m going to also note that I have no particular moral/political science qualms with your “solution,” but I also have to note that, as has been true soooooo many times in the past, my lack of objection probably represents an argument against a course of action because I suspect that you don’t really want to live in a nation that gives people like me control of the nuclear football. I know I don’t want to live in that kind of place.

    In closing, I will note that your proposal–while not triggering any moral (governments exist in the state of nature, the only morality is survival) or poli sci qualms–does fail on the basis of utility. Closing off drug routes and roads into Pakistan does little if anything (I would say nothing, but will admit that I might be wrong) to stem the goals/actions of al-Qaida. Nuking the borders of Afghanistan would certainly shown that we were angry, but I doubt that it would have accomplished much else. YMMV.

    ETA: “Nukes are just bombs. Big bombs, but just bombs.”

    Ummmm… no. A big qualitative difference. Something about residual contamination or radiation or something. I don’t really understand it.

  25. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Which would you choose? No fantasy, reality, what’s your choice?

    Yes, let’s choose between shitty outcome X (but we need to be able to see into the future to know exactly how shitty it is going to be) and outcome Y that only exists in your head.

    What kind of choice is that?

    Germany and North Vietnam suffered far more than you would propose doing to Afghanistan; and neither gave up on account of aerial bombardment. So who can say what the Afghans (who – even under the Taliban – were to a much greater extent ruled by regional warlords rather than a central government) would do?

    Furthermore, your reasoning isn’t even internally consistent. You say you don’t believe in proportionality, while also arguing for a course of action because there would be fewer civilian casualties.

    If proportionality doesn’t matter, why not nuke the entire country? After all, proportionality “is not a tool of the powerful.”

    Really, you jumped the shark here.

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  26. An Interested Party says:

    By saying ‘no nukes’ you’re trying to make war less horrible. You’re trying to set some limits. But a war with limits is a war without end.

    Nuclear weapons probably saved us from World War III…

  27. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “And are you going to explain to all those dead that we had to let them die in order to look good on the world stage?”

    General “Buck” Turgidson:
    Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless *distinguishable*, postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.

    President Merkin Muffley:
    You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war!

    General “Buck” Turgidson:
    Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.

    You know, Michael, when you find yourself making the same argument as General Buck Turgidson, it might be time to rethink your approach…

  28. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Maybe we should have soaked blankets in smallpox and handed them out to Afghan civillians. I mean, if all war is equally moral, why should we draw the line at nukes when biological weapons could take out the entire population without endangering a single American soldier? Or if you’re worried about pathogens crossing borders — pussy! — then maybe just vast chemical warfare. Gas those bastards!

  29. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Had we decided on proportionality we’d be in year 159 of the Civil War.”

    You mean we’re not?

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  30. gVOR08 says:

    We spent at least 1 Trillion dollars on this. Probably multiples of that. WIKI says Afghanistan’s GDP is 22 Billion. We could have bought the place for what we’ve spent.

    A quick raid to cripple al Qaeda, kill bin Laden, and demonstrate our ability to punish Afghanistan might have made sense. I’m not sure that wasn’t the original idea. But then Bush seemed to fixate on Iraq, and left the military still in Afghanistan with no defined mission, or at least no credible mission.

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  31. Not the IT Dept. says:

    We’ll get over our war fever when it stops being something that occurs Way The Heck Over There On The Other Side Of The World and starts happening in America as well. There’s no rule that says we’re immune to attack or that we’re the only ones who know how to make the drones work. Or how about cyberwarfare against our public utilities? Could you handle going without water or electricity for four to six weeks on the entire eastern seaboard or midwest? People would be eating their children before it was over.

  32. Kingdaddy says:

    In 2001, rather than mobilizing the nation in a serious effort to combat Al Qaeda and remove Afghanistan as a staging ground for future terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration asked Americans to shop. The Bush team decided to do Afghanistan on the cheap, in terms of political, military, and budgetary capital. That same philosophy extended to Iraq. It won’t take a serious effort, they argued, and never made clear what the objective was.

    More than us, the Afghans have paid the price for our sloppiness, indolence, and indifference. And it isn’t the first time. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, we disengaged in a hurry, on the assumption that we wouldn’t have to worry about that country again. And here we are, having committed the same sin not once, but twice.

    By “we,” I do mean more than just Bush, Cheney, et al. Extend the list of suspects to Obama, Biden, and others in that Administration if you want. Unfortunately, the problems that the Post article describes were set into motion from the very beginning. Try to do it on the cheap, and you make it hard for people in the national security bureaucracy to tell the leadership that the discount version of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency isn’t working, and in fact is fundamentally misconceived. That’s going to lead to unjustified optimism, or downright mendacity, in communications with others. And if the objective isn’t clear, who’s to say that “progress” along some dimension (for example, killing Taliban leaders) isn’t a sign of success overall?

    “We” also means the American public, who never took responsibility. Where were the public outcries for some definition of victory, let alone accurate reporting on how we were progressing towards that goal? Or the demand for accountability that this conflict had turned into America’s longest war? A lot of Americans are willing to accept the shared fantasy that we could do Afghanistan on the cheap, with no clear goals, as long as another 9/11-scale attack didn’t happen.

    I’m really depressed by the Post’s report, but I’m not surprised.

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  33. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    That is certainly conventional wisdom, and it makes some sense, but it’s wrong. Only three nuclear powers are able/motivated to use nukes against us or our interests: Russia, China and North Korea. Which of those is deterred by our fine example of forgoing nukes? They are deterred by the threat that we may well use nukes if necessary.

    Use of nuclear weapons is going to get Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and a whole lot of other countries developing them as quickly as possible. Countries without strong command and control regimes.

    It also opens the door for the US to do it again. If Bush had nuked Afghanistan, do you think he wouldn’t have used nuclear weapons in Iraq? Do you think Trump wouldn’t have nuked someone? Like a trade war, nuclear war is easy, etc. especially when that country doesn’t (yet) have nuclear weapons.

  34. Jay L Gischer says:

    I do not regret going into Afghanistan. They were sheltering Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who had just destroyed a bunch of buildings and killed a bunch of our citizens. No, that was fine.

    And the mission to get bin Laden failed. On Bush43’s watch. So he changed the subject to Iraq, and dumped Afghanistan into the lap of the next president, who, for better or worse, kicked the can down the road. You would have thought that for all his trash talk, Trump would have walked away from Afghanistan instead of Syria, but no. That would have been useful.

  35. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Stop being mesmerized by the word ‘nuclear.’

    Fair enough.

    How about the word “fallout”? How about “salted” nukes with Cobalt-60 enhanced fallout?

    It’s plain fact a conventional bomb doesn’t leave behind radiation that will kill you if you stumble on to the bomb site months later.

    The big fear concerning nukes, IMO, is that when they are used again, they’ll prove to be not as horrible as people imagined them to be. Meaning the use after that is that much more likely.

  36. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well, I agree that humans tend to be “mezmerized” by nukes. For a college history paper, I read a lot of newspaper accounts and editorials that were published on August 8-10. Yeah, there was a lot of wide-eyed talk of “splitting the atom”. There still kind of is.

    Even if every person who reads this blog stops “being mezmerized” by nukes, that’s maybe %0.025 of the country’s population, and maybe %0.0025 of the world’s population. The rest will still treat nukes as categorically different from conventional bombs. Because that’s how human beings work. I don’t have the power to change that. I don’t think any politician or celebrity has the power to change that.

    I think there’s maybe one thing that might change that, and it’s an extended nuclear exchange. But that has a great likelihood of poisoning large portions of the Earth’s surface. So no, I don’t really want to go there.

    And in my more cynical moments I wonder if this is going to, one day, make us look like Mitch McConnell makes the Senate Democratic Caucus look each time he throws over a norm, or longstanding procedure. You know, sort of like “what an idiot for following the rules!”

    Yeah, it probably will. I kind of don’t care. I don’t want to be the first to do it.

  37. Chip Daniels says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    And after the forceful response, then what happens?

    The cause of the war was that Afghanistan was a lawless place which allowed OBL to hide and plan in secret.

    A massive campaign of devastation would have left Afghanistan a…lawless place where terrorists can hide and plan in secret.

    I’m not seeing the logic here.

  38. the Q says:

    “……..Afghanistan is of no real strategic value to the United States and our continued presence there serves no useful purpose other than….” You’re kidding right?

    Because Afghanistan serves a very usual purpose…it fattens the budgets of the Pentagon, the profit margins of the big defense contractors, keeps the myth of the “war on terror” alive to justify these bloated expenditures in the minds of John Q. Dipschite and somewhat keeps our war economy alive and well until the “Chinese building artificial reefs in disputed waters” threat soon replaces the two decade old and tired “GWOT” narrative to justify the continued bloat.

    Really, the lies the military brass have told about our status there is 1,ooo times worse than what Trump is being impeached for.

    We had about 8 years of diminished Pentagon spending in the 90s, with the last four of those years resulting in BUDGET SURPLUSES. Well, PNAC took care of that problem for the MIC and voila, 3 years later the bonanza of riches started with the fake war on terror.

    So, far from “serving no useful purpose”, to the oligarchs that run this country, Afghanistan served a very “useful” purpose.

  39. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Michael, I say, again, look at the accomplishments of strategic bombing in WWII. Korea. Vietnam. Yeah yeah, Hiroshima, Nagasaki… There is no Hiroshima or Nagasaki in Afghanistan. There is Kabul and then…

  40. Greg says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It should not be forgotten that the USA is the trendsetter for the rest of the world, for friends and enemies alike. Whether it is music, climate change, or the means of war, countries see what the US does and sets their benchmark for behavior accordingly. If we should use tactical nukes, we open the door for others to do the same. Thus a US tactical nuke would give new dimensions to the term “unforeseen consequences.”

  41. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You (collectively) are adopting a moral pose which is immoral at its core. More deaths – ours and theirs – so that we can claim a moral high ground and set an example that impresses absolutely no one. It’s virtue signaling. It’s a refusal to look the horror of war squarely in the face.

    Speaking personally, I’m well aware of the impacts of firebombing vs nukes in WWII, and how bloody an invasion of Japan would have been. The morality of total war and bombing civilians had been decided a decade earlier in Spain and didn’t enter into the equation at all. Since then, however, there are quite a few treaties like the Geneva Convention outlawing things that were all too common in WWII. Do you recommend we just throw those out when it’s inconvenient? Sounds like Trump busting norms because he doesn’t like them to me.

    Your argument might have merit if we were fighting an absolute threat to our entire existence. But we aren’t. And even then, at best, your argument is just another variation on the philosophy that might makes right. Sadly that is all too frequently true even today, but if civilization means anything it means other rules apply (to nations as well as Presidents).

    Finally, you are reducing the cost/benefit analysis to a single set of events and isolating them: invasion vs nukes in Afghanistan, as if that wouldn’t impact the future of countries far outside Afghanistan. Most of the rest of us are adding in expected future costs/benefits and see considerable downside to opening a Pandora’s box of “limited” nuclear war. Whether that’s drifting radiation, the loss of soft power respect, doubt about whether it would actually work, or the likelihood that after it happens once it will happen increasingly more often. You don’t have to agree with any of those considerations, but they are quite a bit more than “virtue signaling” which is insultingly dismissive.

  42. Nickel Front says:

    Damn.

    It’s almost enough to make one question the military experts.

    1
    3
  43. gVOR08 says:

    We were all told that the military and the government, our supposed elites, had learned the lessons incorporated in the Powell Doctrine. From WIKI:
    The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

    Is a vital national security interest threatened?
    Do we have a clear attainable objective?
    Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
    Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
    Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
    Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
    Is the action supported by the American people?
    Do we have genuine broad international support?

    We were entitled to believe they had learned this because…duh!, how could they not have?

    Over at LGM Paul Campos comments on the Afghanistan Papers. I fear he is right when he says

    What will come of this? Given that the one thing the military did learn from Vietnam is that conscripting middle and upper class kids into a pointless war tends to make that war politically unpopular, while fighting it with an all “volunteer” military tends to make its cost far more palatable to those privileged enough to avoid almost all that cost, my guess is “nothing.”

  44. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    There is Kabul and then…

    Some years ago online somewhere I saw one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. It was a coffee table book, pictures of Kabul in in the sixties. Streets that looked like a middling city main street. Multistory brick buildings, retail signs out front, cars on the roads, young women without veils, some dressed like Jackie Kennedy getting into a Cadillac in front of a boutique clothing store, men in western suits going about business, a large, modern factory. Could have been pictures of, say, Rockford IL at the time except for the ethnic faces.

    I’m sure it was 3/4 BS put out by someone’s PR people, but still it’s all blown up. By the Russians, by the Taliban, and by us. Still playing what the Brits called “the Great Game”.

  45. Barry says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: “Having said that…it’s not like Bush/Cheney left him a decent hand to play.”

    The problem here is that the president who actually pulls out will the one who ‘lost’ the war.

  46. An Interested Party says:

    It’s almost enough to make one question the military experts.

    As opposed to the ideologues who suggested that Iraq was somehow connected to 9/11…