The Ugly Truth About America’s Longest War

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S1: Five years back, the inspector general overseeing Afghanistan’s reconstruction started this project. It was called Lessons Learned.

S2: Lessons learned is is a phrase within the military. There is something called the Office of Lessons Learned in the Army.

S1: This is Fred Kaplan. He is Slate’s War Stories columnist and end.

S2: It helps in educating. It feeds back into military doctrine that that affects training in the future.

S3: How many how many battles do they. I only can see all of them. All of them.

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S2: Like a battle that was done in Iraq, you know, two years ago, there was either particularly successful or particularly unsuccessful, they’ll look at that and they will go interview dozens or hundreds of people who were involved in it. They’ll look at the plans and look at everything. And yeah, it’s it’s one of the most useful things that that the military does. And I don’t know. Probably not a lot of militaries do this.

S3: The lessons the inspector general’s office was hoping to learn when it launched this team, those were a little different.

S2: This was conducted by an agency that was set up to look in to essentially waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan. And they were looking primarily at corruption and its effect on the war.

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S1: The team conducted interview after interview and eventually those conversations got compiled into these dense bureaucratic reports with titles like capturing and institutionalizing lessons from complex stabilization efforts. But the inspector general left a few things out this week after a year long legal battle. The Washington Post published the rest of the story.

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S4: Well, these papers we obtained, they just they have horror story after horror story, the AP records of 400 interviews with White House and military officials.

S5: None of these people seemed to have a clear idea of how to end the war in Afghanistan. Many of them seem unclear of what the U.S. was trying to achieve in the country to begin with.

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S4: But the power of these papers, it isn’t one person saying this or two or ten. It’s dozens and dozens of people who are directly involved in the war giving these pretty blistering accounts.

S3: The military has a whole office of lessons learned. This report was called Lessons Learned. But looking at this release from The Washington Post, I can’t discern any lessons that we’ve learned.

S2: No, no, no. That’s the thing. It’s like. You know, I could give you advice. Those could be lessons, whether you learn them or not, it’s up to you. Right. If you really learned the lessons, you would say. Jesus, we really we really had the wrong approach to this from the very beginning. And we’re just really not equipped to do this kind of thing, are we? So we’re kind of in and this is the definition of a quagmire.

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S1: Today on the show, Fred’s going to try to explain the real lessons learned from these Afghanistan papers, they tell the story of a decades long war from the inside and they help explain why this war, which is still going on right now, has been so hard to end. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us. When I saw this story The Washington Post published on Monday, it was hard not to think of another trove of documents. This newspaper had published nearly 50 years ago, Fred Kaplan He had the same thought in my column about this new report.

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S2: I said that it’s the that there hasn’t been such an official critique of an ongoing war since the Pentagon Papers. It’s not quite like the Pentagon Papers, though, because the Pentagon Papers really did reveal a lot of stuff that we did not know. Pentagon Papers came out 1971. It was commissioned in 68, came out in 71 was. But that went into a whole history of our involvement in Vietnam, which nobody knew anything about. It contained interagency memos from D.O.D., CIA, the White House, which which showed that, for example, by early 1965, they knew that this was not going to be a winning war with Afghanistan. As I said, it’s different in that it’s it’s not an attempt to draw a broad, broad picture of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan the same way that the Pentagon Papers were to Vietnam. This report is just interviewing a lot of people and they’re saying things that have been known for quite a while. I mean, the interviews themselves were conducted between 2015 and 2018. But where we’re at where it does have similarities is that it points up. It breaks down the causes of our failure there. It recognizes that there is a failure. And this study, although it started with much narrower aims.

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S6: Traces the same kind of institutional and intellectual failure of of. Where did we go wrong? What did we not see? What what.

S1: What could we have done different in the more than 2000 pages of documents? The Post is published. U.S. officials are extremely candid, even morbidly funny. They reveal how the U.S. government began to stumble pretty much as soon as we got into the Afghan war.

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S3: The quotes that are in this are just so stunning. The number out there right now is that we spent a trillion dollars. Is that right? And Afghanistan’s about nine hundred and eighty billion dollars.

S5: And there’s a retired Navy SEAL in here who says 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.

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S1: It’s just stunning.

S2: The war in Afghanistan began as an almost universally supported thing. It was, you know, Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center. The Taliban government in Afghanistan was protecting him. We went in there, chased out bin Laden and overthrew the Taliban. And it’s a kind of co-operative thing with special forces, the CIA and some Afghan.

S1: Insurgents. I mean, there’s this feeling I still remember it in 2001, whereas like we have to do something.

S2: Absolutely. But then and the the basis for this was I was partly correct. It was like, okay. This country is completely screwed up. These guys are gonna come back. This is a vacuum. It’s completely unstable. We have to help build this country up. Nation building was the phrase at the time, remember? And at the beginning, this was a very small effort. So the commander in Afghanistan at the time who wasn’t being paid any attention to at all by Washington because Washington had shifted its mind to Iraq by this point. But he brought in a handful of experts, you know, a couple of transportation experts, a couple of banking experts, a couple. And they kind of integrated themselves within what was there wasn’t much of one, but the Afghan government. There was a central government. It was being built up. It was a small thing. The next commander abandoned all of that. And to the extent that nation building started percolating up again, the military did it. And they brought in huge bureaucracies, which brought in lots of money. And it was seen that, oh, you know, these guys don’t have money. We need to to pour billions of dollars into their bureaucracies. Well, the bureaucracies were run by warlords. It was all a corrupt network. And in fact, we helped create the corruption that was in Afghanistan. And that’s the insight of this of at least the one the one aspect of the report that I focused on, because it the lesson of that is that we really don’t know how to do this kind of thing and that we end up making it worse.

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S3: The other quote that really stood out to me.

S5: You had so many priorities and aspirations. It was like no strategy at all. This is from an anonymous official. There was a present under the Christmas tree for everyone.

S2: Yeah, that’s part of it, too. And the other thing is, and this was true of Vietnam as well, we go in there without understanding the place at all. If you’re there to win the hearts and minds of the people, what do they want? Maybe they’re not so interested in the goods and services that you have to offer. Maybe they just want justice and stability. I mean, I was when I was in Afghanistan and flying over it, basically, it’s nothing but rugged. You’re looking out the window. It’s rugged mountains.

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S7: And then occasionally there’ll be this little strip of blue, which is all a river, and then two little strips of green around doing. I mean, the idea of having you look at this and you say there is no way that you can have a centralized government, this place and its people are so separated.

S1: The former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, he’s quoted in these papers saying America’s single biggest project in Afghanistan may have actually been the development of mass corruption.

S8: A whole heck of a lot of stuff in two countries. Biggest single project handling course, development, corruption, development, legacy respects.

S1: One contractor explains how he felt unable to control the graft because Congress had appropriated so much money from to give away $3 million a day in a small area, maybe the size of an American county.

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S2: And you know, there is an interesting thing I wrote about in 2010 for Slate, a hearing that was taking place, Senate Armed Services Committee Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s saying the big problem here is corruption. Senator Lindsey Graham kind of starts glomming onto this. Yes. So corruption. So you mean that the government doesn’t have the legitimacy? That’s right. That’s right. Presence.

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S9: Would you agree? It is. It is clearly the the lack of legitimacy in the government at at every level that people don’t get services from their government.

S7: And so you’re saying that we could send a million troops to Afghanistan. It wouldn’t matter if the government was still illegitimate. And he said, that’s right.

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S9: We could send a million troops and that will not restore legitimacy to that government. I agree with that. That is a fact.

S2: And, you know, there were anti-corruption task forces created, but what was missed was that there was no recognition that by pouring in billions of dollars to a fragile state and an already warlord dominated society, that we were feeding the corruption, we were making it worse, and therefore we were making the main goal of the operation more and more elusive.

S3: So it wasn’t just that it wasn’t making a difference. It we had negative difference.

S10: And Cabinet members didn’t agree about how to respond. Fred says there’s one story that sticks with him, story about how even when an administration is trying to be careful, deliberative Afghanistan can feel like a trap. President Obama had just taken office and did decide, what do I do here? One option was to invest in a full counterinsurgency strategy. Send more troops, pay for roads and bridges. It was a strategy his commanders had already tried out in Iraq.

S6: The other option was we send in 10000 more troops and beef up the training of the Afghan military and continue to fight terrorism on the border. And Obama wrestled with this and he finally said, okay, I’m going to give this a chance. So they sent an additional 30000 troops, making it about a hundred thousand in all. And he adopted this strategy. But what isn’t generally known, although I reported this in my book called The Insurgents the last day before he decided he called the main military people into his office. He goes, okay, look, can you assure me that within 18 months you will be able to turn half of the districts in Afghanistan so that they support the government? And they said, oh, absolutely, sir. I don’t know what he meant. You know, here’s the thing. If you don’t, I’m not going to give you anymore. It’s the end of it. We’re not. This is an experiment. So really, tell me, because if you don’t think this is possible, I’ll just send in 10000 more troops and we’ll we’ll up what will improve training of the Afghan military, which, by the way, is what Vice President Joe Biden wants to do. He thought this counterinsurgency was a lot of nonsense. And initially, Secretary of Defense Gates felt the same way, but he changed his mind. Think of Gates and Biden had been against doing this. It wouldn’t have happened. So you said, really, I I know that in the past people have come in and said, sir, we need just a few more brigades. And the president has given. I’m not going to do that. This is it. So tell me. And they told him. Oh, yes, sir, it will work knowing that it would not work.

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S3: The story you tell about President Obama, I think is interesting because it shows this deep ambivalence. Yes. Always was about what to do and what the right thing to do is. You know, I looked up a speech he gave in 2009, so he had just really taken office and he was simultaneously announcing the surge and we’re getting out. That was probably a mistake.

S11: This review is now complete. And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.

S6: I mean, that was that was a speech at West Point at the end of 2009 after 10 NSC meetings to decide what to do. And he’s been roundly criticized for that, and I think rightly so, that you don’t say you don’t announce that publicly. But then again, like Trump, he said, I’m going to make this different. We’re putting in more troops and they’re staying there until it’s over. So take that Taliban. You can’t just wait us out. Did anything change that? No, no, not at all.

S1: Now, President Trump is actually in the process of slowly withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He’s reopening talks with the Taliban, too. But even Trump plans to leave more than 8000 soldiers on the ground. Some of the people fighting now weren’t even born when the fight began. Part of what you sort of see in these interviews is that no one wants to be the guy who’s like, we messed up. Exactly.

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S6: Nobody wants to tell the president. The president says, General, what can we do? Mr. Secretary, what. What can we do here? I want to succeed. What can we do? Nobody wants to be the guy to say, Mr. President, I’m sorry. You don’t have any options. There’s nothing to be done. Even though that may be said that it’s right. I mean, yeah, you need somebody to say that if it’s true. But the president’s telling you to do something and, you know. Yeah. It’s OK.

S2: Let let’s go out there and try to do it. This is what the president wants. So, yeah, you come up with something to show that you made progress. Some of it is so that you can go to sleep at night. Some of it is so that your career can advance. And some of it is that you really believe in the mission and of people back in Washington thought that it was just it just not happening. They might drop the whole mission. So you’ve got to keep it going.

S1: It’s like at the same time, it’s shocking and completely unsurprising. Like everything in this war, it’s like, of course. But then it’s there’s something about seeing. The words and the descriptions like, wow.

S6: The other thing is that in Afghanistan now, unlike Vietnam in 1971, when the Pentagon Papers, its very low profile, not very many people, not very many Americans are dying there. Really very few. And it’s so low profile that this enormous story. I don’t know, maybe because the MPAA did got very little coverage in TV news. I mean, I tell you stories that I write about Afghanistan generally, they don’t get very they don’t get read very much. Maybe this one did, but generally, no. Nobody nobody is interested in that, Mark, because not that many people are dying.

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S2: And it’s kind of a steady state thing that’s been going on for so long that people say, oh, okay. Not really. Nobody I know is in danger there. So whatever. It’s a whatever kind of place that’s dark. So that’s why I think the important thing about this study is not maybe it’s not even so much the stuff about the lies and deceptions, which everybody, as you say, kind of intuited it if they didn’t know in such detail. But it’s the lessons, the lessons we might learn from it. And before we get sucked into some other conflict like this and by the way, I mean, every 20 years or so we do, we get sucked into a conflict like this and we go into it never having learned the lessons that we thought were pretty clearly transmitted from the last one.

S12: Fred Kaplan is Slate’s war stories correspondent. He’s also working on a new book. It’s going to come out next month. It’s called The Bomb. Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War. All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt. Silvers, Jason De Leon and Mary Wilson. I’m Mary Harris. You can go pay me a visit on Twitter. Go complain about how I say all the time in interviews. It’s true. I do it. I’m at Mary’s desk tomorrow morning. Lizzie O’Leary is going to be here in your podcast, Feed with what next TBD. She is talking to Taylor larenz from New York Times about what we misunderstand about Internet influencers. Look for it. I will talk to you on Monday.