IT was an unwinnable conflict but lies covered the failure. For almost two decades, the American people have been misled by their leaders over a war that has gone wrong. The US went into Afghanistan in 2001 out of revenge, with little understanding of a land which is often described as the ‘graveyard of empires’.
Even if the world’s greatest military power believes that it has not lost the war, it has not won it either. All three American presidents since 2001 — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders were not able to make good on their promises to win in Afghanistan.
An investigative report ‘The Afghanistan Papers’ in the Washington Post reveals how facts were distorted to hide the bleak reality of the battleground. Based on thousands of pages of government documents and confidential interviews, the report provides insightful detail into the lies and failures that are part of the 18-year US-led war in Afghanistan.
It took a three-year legal battle for Washington Post to publish the transcripts of the interviews collected for a project of Sigar, a federal agency tasked with ending corruption and inefficiency in America’s war effort. ‘The Afghanistan Papers’ has echoes of the Pentagon Papers, a report on the secret military history of the Vietnam War that was leaked in 1971 and exposed the fabrications of the government. It’s like history repeating itself with no lessons learnt.
A damning new report shows the extent to which America tried to cover up its failures in Afghanistan.
The feeling of frustration and desperation expressed by the top officials in the interviews are in contrast to the public statements by the American civil and military leadership. As highlighted in the report, the lack of a clear strategy and conflicting objectives has dogged the war from the outset.
How clueless the Americans were when they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to avenge the 9/11 attacks was well described by the three-star army general, Douglas Lute, the ‘war czar’ during the Bush and Obama administrations. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Gen Lute told interviewers in 2015 as quoted in the Washington Post report. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
There have been fundamental disagreements on the objectives of the US operation in Afghanistan within US administrations. While some officials wanted Afghanistan to become a political democracy, others wanted the war to change Afghan culture, including its views on women’s rights. Some looked at the broader picture, wanting a regional balance of power among the nearby states, according to the report. Perhaps, the biggest confusion among various US departments has been whether Pakistan is a friend or an adversary.
Unsurprisingly, the war has dragged on, making it the longest the United States has ever fought. Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed in the war that has cost a trillion dollars, and there is no sign yet of it ending anytime soon. Since 2001, over 775,000 US troops have been deployed in Afghanistan.
Of those, over 2,000 died there, while more than 20,000 were wounded in action. The report shows a complete bureaucratic breakdown in Congress, Pentagon and the State Department, resulting in military failure.
The report also contradicts the many public statements that were made by American presidents, military commanders and diplomats who kept on assuring their countrymen that the American war effort in Afghanistan was yielding dividends. Barack Obama went so far as to declare the conflict a “good war”.
According to the report, there have been sustained efforts by the US government to deliberately mislead the public. “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.”
According to a senior counterinsurgency adviser to US military commanders quoted in the report, there were several changes in the facts to present the best picture possible. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone,” he told the interviewer.
The report quoting senior officials also highlights the “US government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade”. Most of the US aid money was siphoned off by Afghan officials and warlords aligned with the United States. Afghanistan has become a narco state as a result of some very flawed policies.
Despite spending billions of dollars on building and training the Afghan National Army and other security personnel, Afghan forces have not been capable of fighting the Afghan Taliban without American support. More than 64,000 Afghan soldiers have been killed fighting the militia. The casualty rate is much higher among Afghan soldiers than the US forces.
In confidential interviews, Afghan security forces were described by US military trainers as “incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters”. They also accused Afghan commanders of appropriating the salaries of tens of thousands of ‘ghost soldiers’ — much of the money coming from the American taxpayer. None expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever “fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own”.
But in their public statements, US generals would declare that they were making steady progress on “the central plank of their strategy: to train a robust Afghan army and national police force that can defend the country without foreign help”.
Although, the failure of the US forces in Afghanistan has long been evident, the magnitude of chaos and confusion in Washington over the Afghan war is very revealing. The damning report has come out at a time when the stalled talks between the US and Taliban have been revived and it is likely to have some impact on the negotiations between the two sides. It certainly gives the Taliban more confidence.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2019