IN war, the truth is the first casualty. Over two decades, three US presidents, top generals and civilians told lies and half-truths to the American people and the world about the war in Afghanistan. Craig Whitlock, a Washington Post investigator, lifted the curtain after three years of a legal battle to make public the Lessons Learned report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The government agency was entrusted with a project in 2014 costing $11 million to diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan. Its report contains some 2,000 pages of unpublished notes and transcripts based on 428 interviews from 2014 to 2018 with insiders.
A New York Times editorial on the topic reads: “For years military and civilian leaders said that the mission to rebuild Afghanistan was not only possible, but succeeding. Yet in private, the men and women who ran the war acknowledged to the SIGAR what has long been clear to all but the most blinkered observers.”
On Oct 11, 2001 President George W. Bush was asked if he could avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like situation in Afghanistan. He confidently replied, “We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam … we will prevail”. The time frame he gave was from a few months to a couple of years. Years dragged on without results but the generals kept on making rosy pronouncements in public in order to manipulate public opinion. In September 2008, army general Jeffrey Schloesser of the 101st Airborne Division said: “Are we losing the war? Absolutely no way. Can the enemy win it? Absolutely no way.” In his interview to the SIGAR Douglas Lute, a three-star general admitted, “We were devoid of fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we did not know what we were doing.”
For years, the US has lied about the Afghan war.
The report unveiled a torrent of criticism that refuted the official narrative of the war. There were clearly stated objectives in the beginning — to retaliate against Al Qaeda and prevent a repeat of Sept 11. The goals and mission kept changing as the war dragged on. There were so many priorities. It was as if there was no strategy at all. The interviews also revealed how many military commanders struggled to articulate who they were fighting, let alone why. Was Al Qaeda the enemy or the Afghan Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? The militant Islamic State group or the bewildering array of foreign fighters? The US government did not have the solution to this puzzle. In the field US troops, could not tell friend from foe.
The then secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld received a dire warning from the war zone in 2006. In September 2008, he said, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.” He asserted, “We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.” In March 2011, during congressional hearings, Gen Petraeus reported hard-won progress. A year later, defence secretary Leon Panetta stuck to the same script even though he had himself narrowly missed a suicide attack. “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said Bob Crawley, an army colonel who was counter insurgency adviser. Pentagon inflated the numbers of enemy fighters killed.
US allotted $133 billion to build Afghanistan, more than it spent, adjusted for inflation, to revive the whole post-Second World War Marshall Plan. “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason,” according to an unnamed respondent. In a single Afghan district, roughly the size of a US county, a mindboggling $3 million daily was allocated for projects. The US government looked the other way when Afghan power brokers, allies, plundered with impunity. It destroyed the legitimacy of the government.
Lt-Gen Mark Milley publicly praised the Afghan army and police force while knowing full well that the security forces were incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters. The police recruits were drug addicts or Taliban. There was reference to “stealing fools” who reeked of petrol, having stolen so much fuel from the bases.
$9bn were spent on fighting the opium problem. Instead of resulting in a flourishing market economy flourishing drug trade developed. By 2006, US officials feared that narco-traffickers had become stronger than the Afghan government. The drug trade was powering the insurgency. “It was sad to see so many people behave so stupidly,” one US official told the interviewers.
“There have been plenty of lessons to draw from the war in Afghanistan,” said the NYT. But as it also pointed out, “there’s little evidence that the American government has learned them”. In September 2019, the heaviest bombardment of the war was carried out by the US.
Indeed, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. But again, as has been observed, “George Santayana might have better said that those who misinterpret the past are condemned to bungle the present”.
The writer is a former civil servant and former minister.
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2019