U.S. lied about Afghan war, secret reports say
Dec. 10, 2019
WASHINGTON – 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 They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.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. 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 and how the U.S. became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.
"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. "We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking."
Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died and 20,589 were wounded in action, Defense Department figures said.
The interviews bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.
With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their strategies were fatally flawed and that the U.S. government botched attempts to curtail corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in the thriving opium trade.
Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, said an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor at Brown University. But those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"What did we get for this $1 trillion effort?" Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told interviewers.
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to 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 U.S. was winning the war when that was not the case.
John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to the Post that the documents show "the American people have constantly been lied to."
The interviews are the byproduct of a project led by Sopko's agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which was created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste in the war zone. In 2014, at Sopko's direction, SIGAR launched a side venture. Titled "Lessons Learned," the $11 million project was meant to diagnose failures in Afghanistan so the United States would not repeat the mistakes. The staff interviewed more than 600 people with firsthand experience. Most were Americans, but SIGAR analysts also interviewed NATO allies and about 20 Afghan officials.
To augment the interviews, which are raw and unedited, the Post obtained hundreds of pages of previously classified memos about the Afghan war that were dictated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2006.
Dubbed "snowflakes" by Rumsfeld and his staff, the memos are brief instructions or comments that the Pentagon boss dictated to his underlings, often several times a day.
Rumsfeld made a select number of the memos public in 2011 in conjunction with his memoir. But most of his collection — an estimated 59,000 pages — had remained secret.
Together, the documents constitute a secret history of the war and an unsparing appraisal of 18 years of conflict. Running throughout the interviews are torrents of criticism that refute the official narrative of the war, from its earliest days through the start of the Trump administration.
At the outset, for instance, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had a clear, stated objective — to retaliate against al-Qaida and prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Yet the interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing. Some U.S. officials wanted to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to elevate women's rights. Still others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power. An unidentified U.S. official told interviewers in 2015, "By the time you were finished you had so many priorities and aspirations it was like no strategy at all."
The interviews also reveal how U.S. military commanders struggled to articulate who they were fighting, let alone why. Was al-Qaida the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, let alone the warlords on the CIA's payroll?
As a result, U.S. troops in the field often couldn't tell friend from foe. "They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live," a former adviser to an Army Special Forces team told interviewers in 2017. "It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information. … At first, they just kept asking: 'But who are the bad guys, where are they?' "
It wasn't any clearer from the Pentagon. "I have no visibility into who the bad guys are," Rumsfeld said in a 2003 memo.
As commanders in chief, Bush, Obama and Trump all promised the public the same thing. They would avoid falling into the trap of "nation-building" in Afghanistan.
On that score, they failed miserably. The U.S. has allocated more than $133 billion to build up Afghanistan — more than it spent, adjusted for inflation, to revive the whole of Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II.
U.S. officials tried to create a democratic government in Kabul modeled after Washington. "The time frame for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn't have," a former State Department official told interviewers in 2015.
Meanwhile, the United States flooded the fragile country with far more aid than it could absorb. During the peak of the fighting, from 2009 to 2012, U.S. lawmakers and commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other civil-works projects, the faster security would improve. One executive with the U.S. Agency for International Development, guessed that 90% of what they spent was overkill: "We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason."
One contractor told government interviewers he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district.
The aid also gave rise to historic levels of corruption as Afghan power brokers — allies of Washington — plundered with impunity. By allowing corruption to fester, U.S. officials told interviewers, they helped destroy the popular legitimacy of the Afghan government — and many Afghans turned to the Taliban to enforce order.
The documents also contradict a chorus of statements from U.S. presidents, commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress and the war was worth fighting.
The interviews contain numerous admissions that the government routinely touted statistics that officials knew were distorted, spurious or false. Even when casualty counts and other figures looked bad, a senior NSC official said, the White House and Pentagon would spin them to the point of absurdity. Suicide bombings in Kabul were portrayed as a sign of the Taliban's desperation; a rise in U.S. troop deaths was cited as proof that they were taking the fight to the enemy.
Regardless of conditions on the ground, military officers and diplomats took the same line in reports sent up the chain of command: They were making progress.
"From the ambassadors down to the low level, [they all say] we are doing a great job," Michael Flynn, a retired three-star Army general who briefly served as Trump's national security adviser, told government interviewers in 2015. "Really? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?"
Online: For the full report, go to StarTribune.com.