In Afghanista­n, pres­i­dents lied and Amer­i­cans died

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - PERSPECTIV­E - Steve Chapman Steve Chapman, a mem­ber of the Tri­bune Editorial Board, blogs at www .chicagotri­ schap­[email protected]­

The United States is the most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary power in the his­tory of the world. Yet some­how we can’t win a war.

In this cen­tury, we have un­der­taken two ma­jor ones: Afghanista­n and Iraq. The first is the long­est con­flict Amer­i­cans have ever fought — more than 18 years — and shows no sign of end­ing. The sec­ond qual­i­fies as the most cat­a­strophic U.S. for­eign pol­icy blun­der since Viet­nam.

To­gether, these wars have left more than 6,700 Amer­i­cans dead and more than 52,000 crip­pled, maimed, blinded and other­wise in­jured. The ac­cu­mu­lated and fu­ture costs to Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers ex­ceed $6 tril­lion. We fi­nally left Iraq with­out be­ing able to claim vic­tory, and we are still in Afghanista­n. Our peer­less mil­i­tary has failed at its mis­sion.

That para­dox ac­tu­ally helps ex­plain the fail­ures. They are not en­tirely, or even mostly, the fault of our mil­i­tary services. We pro­ceed as though the best troops, the big­gest bud­gets and the dead­li­est weapons are all we need. So we get our­selves into wars with­out un­der­stand­ing ev­ery­thing that vic­tory re­quires. Then we fail to learn from the dev­as­tat­ing sur­prises that we en­counter.

Doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post about Afghanista­n set into stark re­lief how de­luded and dis­hon­est our lead­ers have been. The ma­te­rial con­sists of con­fi­den­tial in­ter­views with more than 400 mil­i­tary and diplo­matic peo­ple with first­hand knowl­edge, con­ducted by the Of­fice of the Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanista­n Re­con­struc­tion.

What emerges from it is that they were fail­ing and knew they were fail­ing, even as the pub­lic was told the war was go­ing well. “The Amer­i­can peo­ple have con­stantly been lied to,” the head of SIGAR told The Post.

Re­mem­ber Ge­orge W. Bush’s “Mis­sion Ac­com­plished” May 1, 2003, speech pro­claim­ing the end of “ma­jor com­bat op­er­a­tions” in Iraq? That day, De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld, in Kabul, said the same thing about Afghanista­n.

Shortly be­fore re­turn­ing in 2009, Army Maj. Gen. Ed­ward Reeder, a Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions com­man­der, re­called, “I was think­ing that there has to be more to solv­ing this prob­lem than killing peo­ple, be­cause that’s what we were do­ing and ev­ery time I went back se­cu­rity was worse.”

More than a decade later, the vi­cious cy­cle con­tin­ues. Last year, U.S. of­fi­cials told NBC News that the num­ber of Tal­iban fight­ers had tripled over the pre­vi­ous four years.

The en­emy, lack­ing Amer­i­can weapons and train­ers, had the most pre­cious com­mod­ity in war: mo­ti­va­tion.

The num­ber of Afghan civil­ians who died in 2018 was the high­est on record.

We were try­ing to trans­form an alien so­ci­ety that we could barely be­gin to com­pre­hend. Af­ter top­pling the Tal­iban regime, we set up a cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment in Kabul. The de­ci­sion, said an uniden­ti­fied State Depart­ment of­fi­cial “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.”

We made enor­mous ef­forts to build the Afghan po­lice and army into com­pe­tent part­ners. But those fa­mil­iar with the ef­fort, noted The Post, “de­picted the Afghan se­cu­rity forces as in­com­pe­tent, un­mo­ti­vated, poorly trained, cor­rupt and rid­dled with de­sert­ers and in­fil­tra­tors.”

One Afghan of­fi­cial asked district tribal lead­ers why 500 se­cu­rity forces couldn’t de­feat a cou­ple of dozen Tal­iban. The an­swer was that “the se­cu­rity peo­ple are not there to de­fend the peo­ple and fight Tal­iban, they are there to make money” — by sell­ing their weapons and fuel. The en­emy, lack­ing Amer­i­can weapons and train­ers, had the most pre­cious com­mod­ity in war: mo­ti­va­tion.

Most of the bil­lions we spent were wasted on ill-ad­vised in­fra­struc­ture projects or stolen by cor­rupt of­fi­cials. Some of the schools we built were taken over by the Tal­iban — and con­verted into bomb-mak­ing fac­to­ries.

The ef­fort suf­fered from Bush’s rash de­ci­sion to take on Sad­dam Hus­sein, yank­ing pres­i­den­tial and Pen­tagon at­ten­tion away from Afghanista­n.

The les­son, said former spe­cial en­voy for Afghanista­n James Dob­bins, was to “just in­vade only one coun­try at a time.” By the time Barack Obama ar­rived, the Tal­iban had re­bounded.

But nei­ther Obama nor Don­ald Trump could bring them­selves to ad­mit we had no for­mula for win­ning. Like Bush, they stayed only to avoid the ap­pear­ance of los­ing. Like Bush, they were will­ing to go on fill­ing graves in mil­i­tary ceme­ter­ies to save face.

Dur­ing the Viet­nam War, John Kerry asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mis­take?” To that ques­tion, our pres­i­dents have a ready an­swer: same way you asked all the oth­ers who died for it.


A bird in flight in May 2014 as the sun rises over Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery in Sec­tion 60, where many Iraq and Afghanista­n war dead are buried.

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