A massive tranche of documents published by the Washington Post on Monday shows that over the 18 years of the war in Afghanistan, officials from three administrations have consistently misled the public about the level of progress, ignored or downplayed the festering problem of corruption, and lacked a clear strategic objective for what is now America’s longest war.
The papers are being released just as the U.S. is restarting talks with the Taliban. Donald Trump, who has expressed a desire to bring the war to an end since he took office, shocked diplomats in September by calling off talks that had been in progress for nearly a year.
The war is nowhere near over—more Afghan civilians were killed last year than in any other year of the war so far—but at least since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it has often been sidelined by other priorities in terms of both government attention and media coverage.
These documents give a sense of why the war has gone on for so long with so little progress to show for it.
The 2,000 pages of documents consist mainly of transcripts of interviews with officials involved in the war by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an agency created in 2008 to investigate fraud and waste in the war effort. SIGAR has, itself, published seven “Lessons Learned” reports drawing on these interviews, but they left out many of the harshest criticisms and did not identify most of the officials interviewed. The Post obtained the transcripts through the Freedom of Information Act and two lawsuits. Those interviewed include well-known figures like Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan; Gen. Michael Flynn, who later served as Donald Trump’s national security adviser; and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. With the expectation of anonymity, the dozens of officials interviewed were far blunter in their assessments than they were in public. As John Sopko, the inspector general in charge of SIGAR, told the Post, the documents show that the “the American people have constantly been lied to.”
These documents are supplemented with hundreds of newly declassified memos from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s memos to staff came with such frequently that Pentagon officials dubbed them snowflakes. Some have been previously declassified but these were recently obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
Here are some of the main revelations:
As early as April 2002, Rumsfeld seemed to sense things were going off the rails, writing, “the fact that Iran and Russia have plans for Afghanistan and we don’t concerns me. … We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave. Help!”
But Rumsfeld’s Pentagon continued to suppress reports of growing opposition to the U.S.-backed Afghan governments and released reports touting the “multitude of good news” coming out of the country’s reconstruction.
“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” said Doug Lute, a former ambassador who was the top White House official on Afghanistan from 2007–13.
Crime and Corruption
Concerns about facilitating corruption recur over and over in the papers. The overwhelming impression from the interviews is that the massive infusion of American cash made the country’s corruption far worse than it already was.
“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” Crocker says, summing up the U.S. mission. Christopher Kolenda, an Army colonel who served as adviser to three commanders in Afghanistan tells the interviewers that “by 2006, the Afghan government had self-organized into a kleptocracy. … The kleptocracy got stronger over time, to the point that the priority of the Afghan government became not good governance but sustaining this kleptocracy.” He compares the level of corruption in the country to a fatal cancer.
Several officials note the irony that one of the rare productive sectors of the Afghan economy—the poppy trade—was the one that the U.S. was trying to eradicate.
Lute also quipped:
We stated that our goal is to establish a “flourishing market economy.” I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade—this is the only part of the market that’s working. It’s really much worse than you think. There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.
Another major theme is wasteful spending. “Congress gives us money to spend and expects us to spend all of it. … The attitude became we don’t care what you do with the money as long as you spend it,” said retired Brig. Gen. Brian Copes. “We were building roads to nowhere. We know how to do development With what we spent, Afghanistan should look like Germany in 1955,” says another officer.
Who Are We Fighting?
Once the Taliban was ousted from power, the purpose of the mission and who the enemy was became far less clear. An unnamed former adviser told the interviewers about meetings he had had with U.S. special forces. “At first they thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and the bad guys live. It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first they just kept asking, “But who are the bad guys, where are they?”
Even Rumsfeld acknowledged in 2003, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.”
The Obama administration prioritized Afghanistan more than the Iraq-fixated Bush administration did, but the confusion persisted. While the U.S. has eventually come around to the idea that some accommodation with the Taliban will be necessary to stabilize the country enough for U.S. troops to leave, this wasn’t a popular view among Obama officials.
“Everyone wanted the Taliban to disappear,” recalls Barnett Rubin, an academic expert on Afghanistan who served as a State Department adviser from 2009–13. “The idea was that if we spent a lot of money building up the Afghan National Security Forces the problem would be solved.”
Former U.S. military officers were withering in their assessments of the Afghan security forces they were training, with one calling them “the bottom of the barrel” and another estimating that about a third of them were “either drug addicts or Taliban.”
The idea that the talks could result in a stable political settlement is still a long shot—but it’s still probably the best hope for ending the conflict with at least something to show for the thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent. There’s now a very good chance that a fourth U.S. administration will inherit the conflict. At this point, they can hardly say they didn’t know what they were getting into.
As Lute put it back in 2015, “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost. Who will say this was in vain?”
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