The lead story in The Washington Post on Monday, December 9, “At War with the Truth,” caught the eye of a wide array of American news editors and reporters, prompting a great many “stories about the story,” including this one. Here is a quick synopsis of the piece, which was written by reporter Craig Whitlock:
After a three-year legal battle, The Post obtained 2,000 pages of interview summaries and transcripts from participants in the Afghanistan War, ranging from Army and Marine officers manning remote outposts, all the way up to senior generals and officials on the National Security Council. The interviews, conducted between 2014 and 2018, were used as research for a series of “Lessons Learned” quarterly reports prepared by an obscure government watchdog agency created in 2008 by Congress called The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, SIGAR for short.
Taken together, Whitlock claims that the documents show “that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence that the war had become unwinnable.”
Here are a few representative quotations drawn from the documents that cast grave doubt on 18 years’ worth of “rosy pronouncements:”
Lt. General Douglas Lute, who played a key role in helping the White House oversee the war in both the Bush and Obama administrations, was blunt and damning in his assessment: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing. What are we trying to do here?” he said in 2015. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
A U.S. Army colonel with several tours of duty in Afghanistan under his belt described the government in Kabul as a “self-organized kleptocracy.” Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker seconded that observation, remarking in 2015 that “Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption. Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there [in 2011-2012], it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it.”
A senior U.S. official remarked in 2015 that with the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy then in place, “there was a present under the Christmas tree for everyone. By the time you were finished you had so many priorities and aspirations it was like no strategy at all.”
The Washington Post, in a slightly awkward, self-congratulatory way, has drawn analogies between The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War and The Pentagon Papers, the secret narrative history of decision-making regarding the Vietnam War, commissioned in 1967 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara after he had soured on a war he had done more than pretty much anyone else to start. The report was leaked to The New York Times, creating a major sensation when it was published in 1971.
The analogy is apt, but only in superficial ways. Like The Pentagon Papers study, the newly released material on our longest war was commissioned by a government agency. Both sets of documents are very large: The Afghanistan material runs to 2,000 pages, and The Post expects that trove to grow considerably as more documents are released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Pentagon study ran to 7,000 pages of narrative, analysis, and supporting documents.
Both sets of documents reveal a morass of confusion and doubt about the prosecution of the wars in question, and Washington’s goals in pursuing them, among those charged with fighting the war. Both studies make it clear that senior military and political leaders, including American presidents, consistently lied to both the American public and Congress about the extent of progress being made by American forces and their allies.
Finally, The Pentagon Papers placed enormous pressure on the Nixon administration to bring an end to the agony that was the Vietnam War. It seems at least possible that The Post’s recent revelations may hasten the end of our interminable commitment in Afghanistan, but I doubt very much it will do so in any direct or dramatic way.
In point of fact, the differences between the two reports are much more significant than the similarities.
The ramifications of the publication of The Pentagon Papers were truly earth-shaking. At the time of their release, they seemed to threaten the entire national security establishment and short-circuit President Nixon’s efforts to bring an end to the Vietnam War on his own terms. Nixon tried to prevent the publication of The Papers on national security grounds. After a long battle, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of The New York Times and The Washington Post, permitting both papers to publish the documents as well as analysis for public consumption. “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic,” intoned Justice Hugo Black.
Relations between the American government and the press were never the same. As journalist Dana Priest writes, “The Pentagon Papers tilted the balance of power between government and media to the media’s side. The decision to publish rests with the owners and editors of media outlets. Period. This fact infuriates the U.S. national security establishment to this day.”
In other words, The Pentagon Papers enshrined the right of the media to chase after government lies and misrepresentations in matters of national security, and to report on them.
The revelations of the secret history of decision-making in Vietnam also transformed Americans’ understanding of the dynamics of the war, exposing as it did not only deceit but egregious misjudgment on the part of key players. We learned, for instance, that Eisenhower had begun undermining the North Vietnamese regime within months after promising not to do so in the Geneva accords of 1954. We learned that the Kennedy administration had given a greenlight to South Vietnamese generals to execute a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and that Lyndon Johnson had ordered a bombing campaign against North Vietnam despite the CIA’s (correct) assertion that such an initiative would most likely intensify communist resolve to support the insurgency rather than diminish it.
We learned from memos by people like Undersecretary of State George Ball that political solutions to the crisis in Vietnam had been available to Johnson in 1964 but that he dismissed them out of hand because he was afraid—yes, afraid—that pulling out of Vietnam would hurt him politically. And we learned that Johnson had committed the Marines to combat missions without telling the Congress or the people.
It also appeared to many analysts who read The Pentagon Papers that Johnson had provoked North Vietnam into escalation rather than the reverse, as he and others in his administration long claimed.
In 1971, this was incendiary stuff.
Thus far, anyway, the Afghanistan Papers and The Washington Post’s reporting on them do not reveal very much truly new about the Afghanistan War or the men who prosecuted it. They confirm in often dramatic fashion what is already widely known by serious students of the conflict in the think tanks and the academy, as well as by most of the war’s veterans: that the conflict was badly misconceived from the start, that the Taliban has been on the ascendency for years, that America’s multi-billion dollar nation-building campaign has failed, and that the government in Kabul today is like a patient on life support. As soon as American money and forces are withdrawn, it will die.
In short, the new material on Afghanistan goes far toward confirming that the war in Afghanistan has already been lost. This, of course, has been the consensus view among military and foreign policy analysts for many years now. Andrew J. Bacevich, the former U.S. Army officer and Boston University professor who writes so well and so eloquently about American military and foreign policy, has been saying so for a decade. Stephen M. Walt, a leading U.S. foreign policy scholar at Harvard, puts it this way in a recent article in Foreign Policy: “We can palaver about peace terms, residual forces, the implications for the upcoming Afghan elections, et cetera, as long as we want, but the cold, hard reality is that the United States has lost the war in Afghanistan. All we are debating—whether in talks with the Taliban or in op-ed pages back home—is the size and shape of the fig leaf designed to conceal a major strategic failure after eighteen years of war, thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered.”
Nowadays, Kabul’s regular forces rarely leave their static defensive positions in pursuit of the bad guys. And when they do, they are usually soundly defeated. “The weight of the Afghan War [now] is mostly on the shoulders of the commandos and the air force,” said Gharzai Khowakhozhai, a former Afghan army general, recently. “Regular forces are not doing their job properly.”
In August of this year, Dan Coats, then-director of U.S. national intelligence, told Congress that “Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory.”
But the confusion over strategy and judging progress has been there from the beginning. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared an end of “major combat” on May 1, 2003. In 2004, the Taliban forces numbered about 9,500 men. By 2011, the number had risen to 25,000. Yet in between those years, the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as various American military commanders, spoke with ebullient optimism about counterinsurgency and nation-building programs that were, in reality, going nowhere.
The most interesting, and in many ways most disturbing, story these days about the war in Afghanistan isn’t the one the Post’s Craig Whitlock has been writing about. It’s the story of why so few Americans seem to care about an on-going war in which 2,370 Americans have died and another 20,000 have been wounded with literally nothing to show for the sacrifice.