A collection of incendiary new documents – called ‘The Afghanistan Papers’ by The Washington Post, which uncovered them – has exposed the self-deception of the United States government even as it continued its 18-year, increasingly futile, war in Afghanistan.
Interviews, audio clips and unpublished notes show that top US officials were disillusioned with a war they knew was unwinnable, even as they told soldiers’ families that their children were dying in Afghanistan for a good reason.
Not knowing their comments would ever become public, these officials highlighted the major failings that none of the three administrations – Bush, Obama or Trump – were able to address.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing... If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction... 2,400 lives lost. Who will say this was in vain?”Douglas Lute, Former General in the US Army
“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”James Dobbins, a former senior US diplomat who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama
‘No Strategy at All’
A major failing of the US that is clearly visible in the papers is the lack of a coherent strategy. What began as a knee-jerk reaction to the 11 September attacks transformed into a democracy-building effort and, simultaneously, an effort to shape regional geopolitics.
“With the ‘AfPak’ strategy, 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.”Unidentified US official
The administration and the military, the papers show, never really had a clear idea of what the enemy looked like.
“They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live. It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: ‘But who are the bad guys, where are they?’”Unnamed former adviser to an Army Special Forces team
And efforts to forcefully introduce a stable democracy into the tribal nation met with little success.
“Our policy was to create a strong central government, which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government. The time frame for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”Unidentified former State Department official told government interviewers in 2015
Excessive, Aimless Spending
The Lessons Learned report showed the US had been spending excessively and aimlessly on infrastructure and the war effort for the last 18 years.
“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?”Jeffrey Eggers, White House Staffer, Former Navy Seal
“After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”Jeffrey Eggers, White House Staffer, Former Navy Seal
“We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.”Unnamed executive with the US Agency for International Development (USAID)
“I had to spend $3 million per day per district. I once asked a congressman on a CODEL (congressional delegation) if he could responsibly spend that kind of money in his district and he said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’”Unidentified contractor
The incredible amount of aid that Washington spent on Afghanistan also gave rise to historic levels of corruption.
“And by 2006, the Afghan government had self-organised into a kleptocracy... a number of senior positions were purchased for a price.”Christopher Kolenda, US Army colonel, Adviser
“I like to use a cancer analogy. Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably be okay. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.”Christopher Kolenda, US Army colonel, Adviser
“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, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it.”Ryan Crocker, who served as the top US diplomat in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012
Though the US had grand plans for setting up a functional military, the interviews show military trainers describing the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated and corrupt.
“Enlisted ODAs (Special Forces teams) hated ALP (Afghan Local Police) because the ALP members were awful – the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel. Vast majority of ALPs didn’t care and were just collecting a paycheck.”Unidentified US Soldier
“About a third of ALP seemed to be drug addicts or Taliban.”Unidentified US Soldier
“Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane.”Unnamed Senior USAID Official
Meanwhile, Afghanistan became the world’s leading source of opium as US’ financial intervention backfired.
“We stated that our goal is to establish a ‘flourishing market economy’. I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade – this is the only part of the market that’s working.”Douglas Lute, Former General in the US Army
Lying to The Public
The Afghanistan Papers reveal that the government relied on false figures to mislead the public. There was constant pressure from above to show that progress was being made, regardless of conditions on the ground.
“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. The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”Senior NSC Official
“It was their explanations. For example: Attacks are getting worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.’ Then, three months later: Attacks are still getting worse? ‘It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning.’”Senior NSC Official
“And this went on and on for two reasons: To make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”Senior NSC Official
“From the ambassadors down to the low level, (they all say) we are doing a great job. Really? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?”Michael Flynn, Retired Three-Star US Army General
“Not one commander is going to leave Afghanistan... and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t accomplish our mission.’ So the next guy that shows up, finds it (their area) screwed up... and then they come back and go, ‘Man, this is really bad.’”Michael Flynn
“Bad news was often stifled. There was more freedom to share bad news if it was small – we’re running over kids with our MRAPs (armored vehicles) – because those things could be changed with policy directives. But when we tried to air larger strategic concerns about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan government, it was clear it wasn’t welcome.”Bob Crowley, Retired Army Colonel who served as a Counterinsurgency Adviser
“Every data point was altered 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.”Bob Crowley
“There was not a willingness to answer questions such as, what is the meaning of this number of schools that you have built? How has that progressed you towards your goal? How do you show this as evidence of success and not just evidence of effort or evidence of just doing a good thing?”John Garofano, a Naval War College Strategist
What Are The Afghanistan Papers?
The documents, which The Washington Post has chosen to collectively call ‘The Afghanistan Papers’, are a collection of over 2,000 pages of notes and transcripts from 428 interviews, as well as several audio recordings.
The interviews feature high-level military personnel, diplomats, and allied officials.
These were conducted by a highly specialised and obscure US government agency called the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) which was created by US Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in the war zone.
In 2014, it launched a USD 11 million project to "diagnonse policy failures" and find out where the US went wrong. Under this project, it has filed seven 'Lessons Learned' reports since 2016.
The Washington Post had asked for this material to be released under the Freedom of Information Act (the US counterpart to RTI). When their request was denied, they fought a legal battle for three years and managed to secure the current, censored versions of these documents.
The publication has asked the court to force SIGAR to make the uncensored documents available. The final judgement is still pending.
(With inputs from The Washington Post.)