On Monday, the Washington Post published its story on the Afghanistan papers: 2,000 pages of interview notes of those involved in the war effort. It details the widespread deception and futility that characterized the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan papers are a depressing indictment of our government.
SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, compiled these interviews and adjacent data into seven reports. SIGAR was created in 2008 to analyze waste and fraud in the reconstruction effort. In 2014, it started the “Lessons Learned” project, interviewing over 600 individuals connected to the Afghan war. The purpose was to document why the war had gone wrong in the eyes of those in charge of it. In 2016, the Post sued to get access to these reports. In the ensuing legal battle, SIGAR argued the American people “had no right to see them.”
On the contrary, Americans not only have the right to read these documents, they should make a point of doing so. The Afghanistan papers are a depressing indictment of our government, but they also hold invaluable lessons that current and future administrations would be wise to observe.
THE UNWINNABLE WAR
The contents of the Afghanistan papers are bleak. According to the Post, While over $2 trillion in taxpayer money was being spent, 2,300 American lives were being lost, and over 20,000 Americans were being wounded, “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.” Over 400 interviews reveal that American officials routinely edited and massaged data for a war they knew was lost. Inspector General John Sopko admitted, “The American people have been constantly lied to.”
Senior officials and generals openly lied to the American public while they privately acknowledged the war was failing.
As early as April 2002, half a year into the war, the American government knew that the mission was going sideways. Conditions on the ground made it difficult to create lasting stability, and officials could not agree on the basic objective of the war itself—let alone who the enemy actually was.
From the beginning, the Department of Defense complained about a complete lack of intelligence. American officials warned that our efforts to build up a stable central government would likely fail, even after we spent $133 billion in aid—more than the entire Marshall Plan. At every step, officials and officers warned their superiors that money was misspent, the Karzai government was hopelessly corrupt, and the Taliban were tougher than expected.
These officials and officers were ignored and sidelined.
Even worse, senior officials and generals openly lied to the American public while, in private, they acknowledged the war was failing. Both Donald Rumsfeld and Leon Panetta, secretaries of defense under Bush and Obama respectively, are exposed in the report as falsely presenting a positive picture, one they knew was a lie.
In 2003, Secretary Rumsfeld complained that he had “no visibility into who the bad guys are. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.” Yet as late as October 2006, Rumsfeld was circulating optimistic reports, full of massaged and manipulated data, assuring Americans that “there is a multitude of good news.” Similarly, Secretary Panetta promised reporters that “the campaign, as I’ve pointed out before, I think has made significant progress,” despite having just survived a suicide attack. Generals like Petraeus, McCaffrey, Rodriguez and Flynn all privately admitted the war was being lost.
LESSONS FOR CURRENT AND FUTURE ADMINISTRATIONS
Like the Pentagon Papers before them, the Afghanistan papers offer multiple lessons that the current administration should take to heart.
The U.S. had more than a valid reason to militarily retaliate after 9/11. Righteous indignation, however, should not dim our wits or lead us to skip doing basic due diligence.
The first is that the U.S. should be skeptical of calls for humanitarian intervention and invasion. The resulting mission creep is often inevitable. The Post notes, “Some U.S. officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights. Still, others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia.”
Rather than focusing U.S. military efforts on U.S. national interests, the Afghan war became a catch-all for cultural and geopolitical transformation in a region we simply did not understand. While thousands of Americans and Afghans died, American officials bickered behind the scenes about what the war was for.
The U.S. had more than a valid reason to militarily retaliate after 9/11. Righteous indignation, however, should not dim our wits or lead us to skip doing basic due diligence. The Trump Administration is correct to instinctively mistrust calls to militarily intervene in places we often don’t understand, for an ever-expanding and evolving list of reasons.
Further, if the President is serious about “draining the swamp,” the officials listed in the Afghanistan papers would be a good place to start.
It is inexcusable that, at nearly every level of leadership, there was systemic dishonesty. American leaders cannot make policy decisions without accurate and honest evaluations of current policy, and analysts cannot make evaluations without a climate of transparency and openness. This recalcitrant, lying bureaucracy—determined to keep its war going at all costs—is exactly what Trump ran against.
If President Trump is serious about keeping his campaign promises to the American people, he should have Attorney General Barr open an investigation into potential crimes committed by those who so flagrantly lied. Congress should hold hearings on the Afghanistan papers—immediately. Former cabinet members, agency officials, and generals need to be subpoenaed. Starting investigations and holding hearings into the actions that resulted in billions squandered and thousands killed would be a great first step in restoring the American people’s trust in their leaders.
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE MUST DEMAND ACCOUNTABILITY
The Afghanistan papers do not show American leaders at their greatest; they reveal a deliberate campaign of disinformation, naivety, and utter cluelessness. The cost of this campaign can be found in VA hospitals, veteran’s cemeteries, and gravesites all over Afghanistan and the United States. It will be nothing short of a national disgrace if the named liars and frauds are not held publicly accountable for the immense damage they’ve done.
The federal government must digest the true lessons of the Afghan war, and the American people must demand accountability.