On Monday, The Washington Post published a blockbuster investigation that amounted to what it called “a secret history” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And it’s clear why American authorities sought to keep this history “secret.”
In private testimony as part of an internal government review, hundreds of U.S. officials and insider experts admitted confusion over a war that has lasted 18 years with no end in sight. They expressed despair over the failure of U.S. strategy to push back the Taliban and exasperation with the mass corruption enabled by American funding of the Afghan government.
Many questioned the reason for thousands of U.S. lives lost and billions of dollars squandered by both Republican and Democratic administrations in nation-building projects in Afghanistan, as well as the ever-growing death toll of Afghans caught in an interminable conflict.
“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 George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
U.S. officials also acknowledged they routinely issued “rosy pronouncements” about their progress in Afghanistan, even when they knew such statements were “false,” and they “hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” The Post reported.
“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture,” a senior National Security Council official told government interviewers in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said Bob Crowley, a retired Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser at U.S. military headquarters in Kabul from 2013 to 2014, in a similar interview.
After a three-year-long legal battle with federal authorities that’s still ongoing, The Post has revealed what’s contained in more than 2,000 pages of unpublished notes and transcripts of interviews with U.S. officials and experts involved in the Afghan war effort. In 2014, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which monitors waste and fraud in the war zone, embarked on a $11 million side project. Its staff interviewed more than 600 people close to U.S. policy in Afghanistan, including some European and Afghan officials, as an internal audit meant to evaluate the missteps of the war and reconstruction effort.
Through two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, The Post obtained the documents and source material related to the SIGAR reports. “With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public,” noted The Post’s Craig Whitlock, “U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.”
The documents highlight the hollow bravura of Bush administration officials who scoffed at concerns that the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan could turn into an extended “quagmire.” They show how myriad U.S. officials doubted the Bush administration’s nation-building goals in Afghanistan, which is still racked by internal strife in Kabul and a Taliban insurgency that holds sway over vast tracts of the country.
“Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government,” an unidentified former State Department official told government interviewers in 2015. Other officials and advisers all noted that widespread corruption, catalyzed by vast sums of U.S. aid money pouring into the country, undermined the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
American attempts to train Afghan security forces also foundered. The documents reveal a deep frustration among U.S. military officials tasked with this training. One unidentified U.S. soldier said Special Forces teams “hated” the Afghan police whom they trained, and called them “awful — the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.” Another officer estimated that one-third of police recruits were “drug addicts or Taliban.” Yet another mocked them as “stealing fools” who looted gasoline from U.S. bases.
Eighteen years since the United States invaded Afghanistan, local forces are still dying on the battlefield, sometimes by the hundreds, every week. Last year also marked the bloodiest year for Afghan civilians since records have been kept for the conflict.
For some observers, The Post’s findings simply confirm what we already knew. “There is little doubt that this war’s defining legacy will be its incredible loss of life, waste of taxpayer dollars, and an Afghanistan shaped by endemic corruption and a thriving opium trade,” said Katie Kizer, policy director of Win Without War, a progressive advocacy group, in an emailed statement.
Yet in Washington, there remains a vocal constituency among policy elites and lawmakers in Congress who champion a seemingly indefinite U.S. presence in Afghanistan, insisting that withdrawal would simply invite further disaster. The revelations within the documents suggest that many U.S. officials — perhaps even some of the same ones advocating the war effort’s continuation into a third decade — doubt in private what they push for in public.
Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.