Pub­lic mis­led on Afghanista­n War

Three White House ad­min­is­tra­tions have told false­hoods and sug­gested suc­cess where it didn’t ex­ist.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Craig Whitlock

WASHINGTON — A con­fi­den­tial trove of gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Washington Post re­veals that se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanista­n through­out the 18-year cam­paign, mak­ing rosy pro­nounce­ments they knew to be false and hid­ing un­mis­tak­able ev­i­dence the war had be­come un­winnable.

The doc­u­ments were gen­er­ated by a fed­eral project ex­am­in­ing the root fail­ures of the long­est armed con­flict in U.S. his­tory. They in­clude more than 2,000 pages of pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished notes of in­ter­views with peo­ple who played a di­rect role in the war, from gen­er­als and diplo­mats to aid work­ers and Afghan of­fi­cials.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment tried to shield the iden­ti­ties of the vast ma­jor­ity of those in­ter­viewed for the project and con­ceal nearly all of their re­marks. The Post won re­lease of the doc­u­ments un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act af­ter a three-year le­gal bat­tle.

In the in­ter­views, more than 400 in­sid­ers of­fered un­re­strained crit­i­cism of what went wrong in Afghanista­n and how the United States be­came mired in nearly two decades of war­fare.

With a blunt­ness rarely ex­pressed in pub­lic, the in­ter­views lay bare pent-up com­plaints, frus­tra­tions and con­fes­sions, along with sec­ond-guess­ing and back­bit­ing.

“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 Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions, told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers in 2015. He added: “What are we try­ing to do here? We didn’t have the fog­gi­est no­tion of what we were un­der­tak­ing.”

“If the Amer­i­can peo­ple knew the mag­ni­tude of this dys­func­tion ... 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blam­ing the deaths of U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel on bu­reau­cratic break­downs among Congress, the Pen­tagon and the State Depart­ment. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have de­ployed to Afghanista­n, many re­peat­edly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in ac­tion, ac­cord­ing to De­fense Depart­ment fig­ures.

The in­ter­views, through an ex­ten­sive ar­ray of voices, bring into sharp re­lief the core fail­ings of the war that per­sist to this day. They un­der­score how three pres­i­dents — Ge­orge W. Bush, Barack Obama and Don­ald Trump — and their mil­i­tary com­man­ders have been un­able to de­liver on their prom­ises to pre­vail in Afghanista­n.

With most speak­ing on the as­sump­tion that their re­marks would not be­come pub­lic, 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 in­ter­views also high­light the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s botched at­tempts to cur­tail run­away cor­rup­tion, build a com­pe­tent Afghan army and po­lice force, and put a dent in Afghanista­n’s thriv­ing opium trade.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has not car­ried out a com­pre­hen­sive ac­count­ing of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanista­n, but the costs are stag­ger­ing.

Since 2001, the De­fense Depart­ment, State Depart­ment and U.S. Agency for

In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment have spent or ap­pro­pri­ated be­tween $934 bil­lion and $978 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to an in­fla­tion-ad­justed es­ti­mate cal­cu­lated by Neta Craw­ford, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor and co-direc­tor of the Costs of War Project at Brown Univer­sity.

Those fig­ures do not in­clude money spent by other agen­cies such as the CIA and the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, which is re­spon­si­ble for med­i­cal care for wounded vet­er­ans.

“What did we get for this $1 tril­lion ef­fort? Was it worth $1 tril­lion?” Jef­frey Eg­gers, a re­tired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers. He added, “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.”

The doc­u­ments also con­tra­dict a long cho­rus of pub­lic state­ments from U.S. pres­i­dents, mil­i­tary com­man­ders and diplo­mats who as­sured Amer­i­cans year af­ter year that they were mak­ing progress in Afghanista­n and the war was worth fight­ing.

Sev­eral of those in­ter­viewed de­scribed ex­plicit and sus­tained ef­forts by the U.S. gov­ern­ment to de­lib­er­ately mis­lead the pub­lic. They said it was com­mon at mil­i­tary head­quar­ters in Kabul — and at the White House — to dis­tort statis­tics to make it ap­pear the United States was win­ning the war when that was not the case.

“Ev­ery data point was al­tered to present the best pic­ture pos­si­ble,” Bob Crow­ley, an Army colonel who served as a se­nior coun­terin­sur­gency ad­viser to U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders in 2013 and 2014, told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers. “Sur­veys, for in­stance, were to­tally un­re­li­able but re­in­forced that ev­ery­thing we were do­ing was right and we be­came a self-lick­ing ice cream cone.”

John Sopko, the head of the fed­eral agency that con­ducted the in­ter­views, ac­knowl­edged to The Post that the doc­u­ments show “the Amer­i­can peo­ple have con­stantly been lied to.”

The in­ter­views are the byprod­uct of a project led by Sopko’s agency, the Of­fice of the Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanista­n Re­con­struc­tion. Known as SI­GAR, the agency was cre­ated by Congress in 2008 to in­ves­ti­gate waste and fraud in the war zone.

In 2014, at Sopko’s di­rec­tion, SI­GAR de­parted from its usual mis­sion of per­form­ing au­dits and launched a side ven­ture. Ti­tled “Lessons Learned,” the $11 mil­lion project was meant to di­ag­nose pol­icy fail­ures in Afghanista­n so the United States would not re­peat the mis­takes the next time it in­vaded a coun­try or tried to re­build a shat­tered one.

The Lessons Learned staff in­ter­viewed more than 600 peo­ple with first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence in the war. Most were Amer­i­cans, but SI­GAR an­a­lysts also trav­eled to Lon­don, Brus­sels and Berlin to in­ter­view NATO al­lies. In ad­di­tion, they in­ter­viewed about 20 Afghan of­fi­cials, dis­cussing re­con­struc­tion and de­vel­op­ment pro­grams.

Draw­ing partly on the in­ter­views, as well as other gov­ern­ment records and statis­tics, SI­GAR has pub­lished seven Lessons Learned reports since 2016 that high­light prob­lems in Afghanista­n and rec­om­mend changes to sta­bi­lize the coun­try.

But the reports, writ­ten in dense bu­reau­cratic prose and fo­cused on an al­pha­bet soup of gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives, left out the harsh­est and most frank crit­i­cisms from the in­ter­views.

“We found the sta­bi­liza­tion strat­egy and the pro­grams used to achieve it were not prop­erly tai­lored to the Afghan con­text, and suc­cesses in sta­bi­liz­ing Afghan dis­tricts rarely lasted longer than the phys­i­cal pres­ence of coali­tion troops and civil­ians,” read the in­tro­duc­tion to one re­port re­leased in May 2018.

The reports also omit­ted the names of more than 90 per­cent of the peo­ple who were in­ter­viewed for the project. While a few of­fi­cials agreed to speak on the record to SI­GAR, the agency said it promised anonymity to ev­ery­one else it in­ter­viewed to avoid con­tro­versy over po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive mat­ters.

Un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act, The Post be­gan seek­ing Lessons Learned in­ter­view records in Au­gust 2016. SI­GAR re­fused, ar­gu­ing that the doc­u­ments were priv­i­leged and that the pub­lic had no right to see them.

The Post had to sue SI­GAR in fed­eral court — twice — to com­pel it to re­lease the doc­u­ments.

The agency even­tu­ally dis­closed more than 2,000 pages of un­pub­lished notes and tran­scripts from 428 of the in­ter­views, as well as sev­eral au­dio record­ings.

The doc­u­ments iden­tify 62 of the peo­ple who were in­ter­viewed, but SI­GAR blacked out the names of 366 oth­ers. In le­gal briefs, the agency con­tended that those in­di­vid­u­als should be seen as whistle­blow­ers and in­for­mants who might face hu­mil­i­a­tion, ha­rass­ment, re­tal­i­a­tion or phys­i­cal harm if their names be­came pub­lic.

By cross-ref­er­enc­ing dates and other de­tails from the doc­u­ments, The Post in­de­pen­dently iden­ti­fied 33 other peo­ple who were in­ter­viewed, in­clud­ing sev­eral for­mer am­bas­sadors, gen­er­als and White House of­fi­cials.

The Post has asked a fed­eral judge to force SI­GAR to dis­close the names of ev­ery­one else in­ter­viewed, ar­gu­ing that the pub­lic has a right to know which of­fi­cials crit­i­cized the war and as­serted that the gov­ern­ment had mis­led the Amer­i­can peo­ple. The

Post also ar­gued the of­fi­cials were not whistle­blow­ers or in­for­mants, be­cause they were not in­ter­viewed as part of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

A de­ci­sion by Judge Amy Berman Jack­son of the U.S. Dis­trict Court in Washington has been pend­ing since late Septem­ber.

The Post is pub­lish­ing the doc­u­ments now, in­stead of wait­ing for a fi­nal rul­ing, to in­form the pub­lic while the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is ne­go­ti­at­ing with the Tal­iban and con­sid­er­ing whether to with­draw the 13,000 U.S. troops who re­main in Afghanista­n.

The Post at­tempted to con­tact for com­ment ev­ery­one whom it was able to iden­tify as hav­ing given an in­ter­view to SI­GAR.

Sopko, the in­spec­tor gen­eral, told The Post that he did not sup­press the blis­ter­ing crit­i­cisms and doubts about the war that of­fi­cials raised in the Lessons Learned in­ter­views. He said it took his of­fice three years to re­lease the records be­cause he has a small staff and be­cause other fed­eral agen­cies had to re­view the doc­u­ments to pre­vent gov­ern­ment se­crets from be­ing dis­closed.

“We didn’t sit on it,” he said. “We’re firm be­liev­ers in open­ness and trans­parency, but we’ve got to fol­low the law . ... I think of any in­spec­tor gen­eral, I’ve prob­a­bly been the most forth­com­ing on in­for­ma­tion.”

The in­ter­view records are raw and unedited, and SI­GAR’s Lessons Learned staff did not stitch them into a uni­fied nar­ra­tive. But they are packed with tough judg­ments from peo­ple who shaped or car­ried out U.S. pol­icy in Afghanista­n.

“We don’t in­vade poor coun­tries to make them rich,” James Dob­bins, a for­mer se­nior U.S. diplo­mat who served as a spe­cial en­voy to Afghanista­n un­der Bush and Obama, told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers. “We don’t in­vade au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­tries to make them demo­cratic. We in­vade vi­o­lent coun­tries to make them peace­ful and we clearly failed in Afghanista­n.”

To aug­ment the Lessons Learned in­ter­views, The Post ob­tained hun­dreds of pages of pre­vi­ously clas­si­fied memos about the Afghan war that were dic­tated by De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld be­tween 2001 and 2006.

Dubbed “snowflakes” by Rums­feld and his staff, the memos are brief in­struc­tions or com­ments that the Pen­tagon boss dic­tated to his un­der­lings, of­ten sev­eral times a day.

Rums­feld made a select num­ber of his snowflakes pub­lic in 2011, post­ing them on­line in con­junc­tion with his mem­oir, “Known and Un­known.” But most of his snowflake col­lec­tion — an es­ti­mated 59,000 pages — re­mained se­cret.

In 2017, in re­sponse to a FOIA law­suit filed by the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ar­chive, a non­profit re­search in­sti­tute based at Ge­orge Washington

Univer­sity, the De­fense Depart­ment be­gan re­view­ing and re­leas­ing the re­main­der of Rums­feld’s snowflakes on a rolling ba­sis. The Ar­chive shared them with The Post.

To­gether, the SI­GAR in­ter­views and the Rums­feld memos per­tain­ing to Afghanista­n con­sti­tute a se­cret his­tory of the war and an un­spar­ing ap­praisal of 18 years of con­flict.

Worded in Rums­feld’s brusque style, many of the snowflakes fore­shadow prob­lems that con­tinue to haunt the U.S. mil­i­tary more than a decade later.

“I may be im­pa­tient. In fact I know I’m a bit im­pa­tient,” Rums­feld wrote in one memo to sev­eral gen­er­als and se­nior aides. “We are never go­ing to get the U.S. mil­i­tary out of Afghanista­n un­less we take care to see that there is some­thing go­ing on that will pro­vide the sta­bil­ity that will be nec­es­sary for us to leave.”

“Help!” he wrote. The memo was dated April 17, 2002 — six months af­ter the war started.

The in­ter­views

“The his­tory of mil­i­tary con­flict in Afghanista­n [has] been one of ini­tial suc­cess, fol­lowed by long years of floun­der­ing and ul­ti­mate fail­ure. We’re not go­ing to re­peat that mis­take.” — Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, in a speech at the Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute

With their forth­right de­scrip­tions of how the United States be­came stuck in a far­away war, as well as the gov­ern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­ceal them from the pub­lic, the cache of Lessons Learned in­ter­views broadly re­sem­bles the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, the De­fense Depart­ment’s topse­cret his­tory of the Viet­nam War.

When they were leaked in 1971, the Pen­tagon Pa­pers caused a sen­sa­tion by re­veal­ing the gov­ern­ment had long mis­led the pub­lic about how the United States came to be em­broiled in Viet­nam.

Bound into 47 vol­umes, the 7,000-page study was based en­tirely on in­ter­nal gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments diplo­matic ca­bles, de­ci­sion­mak­ing memos, in­tel­li­gence reports. To pre­serve se­crecy, De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Mc­Na­mara is­sued an or­der pro­hibit­ing the au­thors from in­ter­view­ing any­one.

SI­GAR’s Lessons Learned project faced no such restrictio­ns. Staffers car­ried out the in­ter­views be­tween 2014 and 2018, mostly with of­fi­cials who served dur­ing the Bush and Obama years.

About 30 of the in­ter­view records are tran­scribed, word-for-word ac­counts. The rest are typed summaries of con­ver­sa­tions: pages of notes and quotes from peo­ple with dif­fer­ent van­tage points in the con­flict, from pro­vin­cial out­posts to the high­est cir­cles of power.

Some of the in­ter­views are in­ex­pli­ca­bly short. The in­ter­view record with John Allen, the Ma­rine gen­eral who com­manded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanista­n from 2011 to 2013, con­sists of five para­graphs.

In con­trast, other in­flu­en­tial fig­ures, in­clud­ing for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador Ryan Crocker, sat for two in­ter­views that yielded 95 tran­scribed pages.

Un­like the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, none of the Lessons Learned doc­u­ments were orig­i­nally clas­si­fied as a gov­ern­ment se­cret. Once The Post pushed to make them pub­lic, how­ever, other fed­eral agen­cies in­ter­vened and clas­si­fied some ma­te­rial af­ter the fact.

The State Depart­ment, for in­stance, as­serted that re­leas­ing por­tions of cer­tain in­ter­views could jeop­ar­dize ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban to end the war. The De­fense Depart­ment and Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion also clas­si­fied some in­ter­view ex­cerpts.

The Lessons Learned in­ter­views con­tain few rev­e­la­tions about mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions. But run­ning through­out are tor­rents of crit­i­cism that re­fute the of­fi­cial nar­ra­tive of the war, from its ear­li­est days through the start of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The Lessons Learned in­ter­views also re­veal how U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders strug­gled to ar­tic­u­late who they were fight­ing, let alone why.

Was al-Qaida the en­emy, or the Tal­iban? Was Pak­istan a friend or an ad­ver­sary? What about the Is­lamic State and the be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of for­eign ji­hadists, let alone the war­lords on the CIA’s pay­roll? Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments, the U.S. gov­ern­ment never set­tled on an an­swer.

As a re­sult, in the field, U.S. troops of­ten couldn’t tell friend from foe.

“They thought I was go­ing to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live,” an un­named for­mer ad­viser to an Army Spe­cial Forces team told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers in 2017. “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?’ “

The view wasn’t any clearer from the Pen­tagon.

“I have no vis­i­bil­ity into who the bad guys are,” Rums­feld com­plained in a Sept. 8, 2003, snowflake. “We are woe­fully de­fi­cient in hu­man in­tel­li­gence.”

Na­tion build­ing

“The days of pro­vid­ing a blank check are over . . . . It must be clear that Afghans will have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their se­cu­rity and that Amer­ica has no in­ter­est in fight­ing an end­less war in Afghanista­n.” — Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, in a speech at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point, N.Y.

As com­man­ders in chief, Bush, Obama and Trump all promised the pub­lic the same thing. They would avoid fall­ing into the trap of “na­tion-build­ing” in Afghanista­n.

On that score, the pres­i­dents failed mis­er­ably. The United States has al­lo­cated more than $133 bil­lion to build up Afghanista­n — more than it spent, ad­justed for in­fla­tion, to re­vive the whole of Western Europe with the Mar­shall Plan af­ter World War II.

The Lessons Learned in­ter­views show the grandiose na­tion-build­ing project was marred from the start.

U.S. of­fi­cials tried to cre­ate — from scratch — a demo­cratic gov­ern­ment in Kabul modeled af­ter their own in Washington. It was a for­eign con­cept to the Afghans, who were ac­cus­tomed to trib­al­ism, monar­chism, com­mu­nism and Is­lamic law.

“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. “The time­frame for cre­at­ing a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”

Mean­while, the United States flooded the frag­ile coun­try with far more aid than it could pos­si­bly ab­sorb.

Dur­ing the peak of the fight­ing, from 2009 to 2012, U.S. law­mak­ers and mil­i­tary com­man­ders be­lieved the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other civil-works projects, the faster se­cu­rity would im­prove. Aid work­ers told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers it was a colos­sal mis­judg­ment, akin to pump­ing kerosene on a dy­ing camp­fire just to keep the flame alive.

One un­named ex­ec­u­tive with the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment (USAID), guessed that 90 per­cent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost ob­jec­tiv­ity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, with­out rea­son.”

Many aid work­ers blamed Congress for what they saw as a mind­less rush to spend.

One uniden­ti­fied con­trac­tor told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers he was ex­pected to dole out $3 mil­lion daily for projects in a sin­gle Afghan dis­trict roughly the size of a U.S. county. He once asked a vis­it­ing con­gress­man whether the law­maker could re­spon­si­bly spend that kind of money back home: “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.’ “

The gusher of aid that Washington spent on Afghanista­n also gave rise to his­toric lev­els of cor­rup­tion.

In pub­lic, U.S. of­fi­cials in­sisted they had no tol­er­ance for graft. But in the Lessons Learned in­ter­views, they ad­mit­ted the U.S. gov­ern­ment looked the other way while Afghan power bro­kers - al­lies of Washington - plun­dered with im­punity.

Christo­pher Kolenda, an Army colonel who de­ployed to Afghanista­n sev­eral times and ad­vised three U.S. gen­er­als in charge of the war, said that the Afghan gov­ern­ment led by Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai had “self-or­ga­nized into a klep­toc­racy” by 2006 — and that U.S. of­fi­cials failed to rec­og­nize the lethal threat it posed to their strat­egy.

“I like to use a cancer anal­ogy,” Kolenda told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers. “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 ok. Klep­toc­racy, how­ever, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.”

By al­low­ing cor­rup­tion to fes­ter, U.S. of­fi­cials told in­ter­view­ers, they helped de­stroy the pop­u­lar le­git­i­macy of the wob­bly Afghan gov­ern­ment they were fight­ing to prop up. With judges and po­lice chiefs and bu­reau­crats ex­tort­ing bribes, many Afghans soured on democ­racy and turned to the Tal­iban to en­force or­der.

De­fend­ing them­selves

“This army and this po­lice force have been very, very ef­fec­tive in com­bat against the in­sur­gents ev­ery sin­gle day. And I think that’s an im­por­tant story to be told across the board.” — Then-Army Lt. Gen. Mark A. Mil­ley, prais­ing the Afghan se­cu­rity forces dur­ing a press brief­ing from Kabul. Mil­ley is now a four-star gen­eral and chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Year af­ter year, U.S. gen­er­als have said in pub­lic they are mak­ing steady progress on the cen­tral plank of their strat­egy: to train a ro­bust Afghan army and na­tional po­lice force that can de­fend the coun­try with­out for­eign help.

In the Lessons Learned in­ter­views, how­ever, U.S. mil­i­tary train­ers de­scribed the Afghan se­cu­rity forces as in­com­pe­tent, un­mo­ti­vated and rife with de­sert­ers. They also ac­cused Afghan com­man­ders of pock­et­ing salaries — paid by U.S. tax­pay­ers — for tens of thou­sands of “ghost sol­diers.”

None ex­pressed con­fi­dence that the Afghan army and po­lice could ever fend off, much less de­feat, the Tal­iban on their own. More than 60,000 mem­bers of Afghan se­cu­rity forces have been killed, a

ca­su­alty rate that U.S. com­man­ders have called un­sus­tain­able.

One uniden­ti­fied U.S. sol­dier said Spe­cial Forces teams “hated” the Afghan po­lice whom they trained and worked with, call­ing them “aw­ful —the bot­tom of the bar­rel in the coun­try that is al­ready at the bot­tom of the bar­rel.”

A U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cer es­ti­mated that one-third of po­lice re­cruits were “drug ad­dicts or Tal­iban.” Yet an­other called them “steal­ing fools” who looted so much fuel from U.S. bases that they per­pet­u­ally smelled of gaso­line.

“Think­ing we could build the mil­i­tary that fast and that well was in­sane,” an un­named se­nior USAID of­fi­cial told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers.

Mean­while, as U.S. hopes for the Afghan se­cu­rity forces failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize, Afghanista­n be­came the world’s lead­ing source of a grow­ing scourge: opium.

The United States has spent about $9 bil­lion to fight the prob­lem over the past 18 years, but Afghan farm­ers are cul­ti­vat­ing more opium pop­pies than ever. Last year, Afghanista­n was re­spon­si­ble for 82 per­cent of global opium pro­duc­tion, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Of­fice on Drugs and Crime.

In the Lessons Learned in­ter­views, for­mer of­fi­cials said al­most ev­ery­thing they did to con­strain opium farm­ing back­fired.

“We stated that our goal is to es­tab­lish a ‘flour­ish­ing mar­ket econ­omy,’” said Dou­glas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war czar from 2007 to 2013. “I thought we should have spec­i­fied a flour­ish­ing drug trade - this is the only part of the mar­ket that’s work­ing.”

From the be­gin­ning, Washington never re­ally fig­ured out how to in­cor­po­rate a war on drugs into its war against al-Qaida. By 2006, U.S. of­fi­cials feared that nar­co­traf­fick­ers had be­come stronger than the Afghan gov­ern­ment and that money from the drug trade was pow­er­ing the in­sur­gency.

No sin­gle agency or coun­try was in charge of the Afghan drug strat­egy for the en­tirety of the war, so the State Depart­ment, the DEA, the U.S. mil­i­tary, NATO al­lies and the Afghan gov­ern­ment butted heads con­stantly.

“It was a dog’s break­fast with no chance of work­ing,” an un­named for­mer se­nior Bri­tish of­fi­cial told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers.

Lessons (not) learned

“Are we los­ing this war? Ab­so­lutely no way. Can the en­emy win it? Ab­so­lutely no way.”— Army Maj. Gen. Jef­frey Schloesser, com­man­der of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion, in a news brief­ing from Afghanista­n.

The specter of Viet­nam has hov­ered over Afghanista­n from the start.

On Oct. 11, 2001, a few days af­ter the United States started bomb­ing the Tal­iban, a re­porter asked Bush: “Can you avoid be­ing drawn into a Viet­nam-like quag­mire in Afghanista­n?”

“We learned some very im­por­tant lessons in Viet­nam,” Bush replied con­fi­dently. “Peo­ple of­ten ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This par­tic­u­lar bat­tle­front will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaida to jus­tice. It may hap­pen to­mor­row, it may hap­pen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will pre­vail.”

In those early days, other U.S. lead­ers mocked the no­tion that the night­mare of Viet­nam might re­peat it­self in Afghanista­n.

“All to­gether now — quag­mire!” Rums­feld joked at a news con­fer­ence on Nov. 27, 2001.

But through­out the Afghan war, doc­u­ments show that U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have re­sorted to an old tac­tic from Viet­nam - ma­nip­u­lat­ing pub­lic opin­ion.

In news con­fer­ences and other pub­lic ap­pear­ances, those in charge of the war have fol­lowed the same talk­ing points for 18 years. No mat­ter how the war is go­ing —and es­pe­cially when it is go­ing badly — they em­pha­size how they are mak­ing progress.

For ex­am­ple, some snowflakes that Rums­feld re­leased with his mem­oir show he had re­ceived a string of un­usu­ally dire warn­ings from the war zone in 2006.

Af­ter re­turn­ing from a fact-find­ing mis­sion to Afghanista­n, Barry McCaf­frey, a re­tired Army gen­eral, re­ported the Tal­iban had made an im­pres­sive come­back and pre­dicted that “we will en­counter some very un­pleas­ant sur­prises in the com­ing 24 months.”

“The Afghan na­tional lead­er­ship are col­lec­tively ter­ri­fied that we will tip-toe out of Afghanista­n in the com­ing few years — leav­ing NATO hold­ing the bag — and the whole thing will col­lapse again into may­hem,” McCaf­frey wrote in June 2006.

Two months later, Marin Strmecki, a civil­ian ad­viser to Rums­feld, gave the Pen­tagon chief a clas­si­fied, 40-page re­port loaded with more bad news. It said “enor­mous pop­u­lar dis­con­tent is build­ing” against the Afghan gov­ern­ment be­cause of its cor­rup­tion and in­com­pe­tence. It also said that the Tal­iban was grow­ing stronger, thanks to sup­port from Pak­istan, a U.S. ally.

Yet with Rums­feld’s per­sonal bless­ing, the Pen­tagon buried the bleak warn­ings and told the pub­lic a very dif­fer­ent story.

In Oc­to­ber 2006, Rums­feld’s speech­writ­ers de­liv­ered a pa­per ti­tled “Afghanista­n: Five Years Later.” Brim­ming with op­ti­mism, it high­lighted more than 50 promis­ing facts and fig­ures, from the num­ber of Afghan women trained in “im­proved poul­try man­age­ment” (more than 19,000) to the “av­er­age speed on most roads” (up 300 per­cent).

“Five years on, there is a mul­ti­tude of good news,” it read. “While it has be­come fash­ion­able in some cir­cles to call Afghanista­n a for­got­ten war, or to say the United States has lost its fo­cus, the facts be­lie the myths.”

Rums­feld thought it was bril­liant. “This pa­per,” he wrote in a memo, “is an ex­cel­lent piece. How do we use it? Should it be an ar­ti­cle? An Op-ed piece? A hand­out? A press brief­ing? All of the above? I think it ought to get it to a lot of peo­ple.”

His staffers made sure it did. They cir­cu­lated a ver­sion to re­porters and posted it on Pen­tagon web­sites.

Since then, U.S. gen­er­als have al­most al­ways preached that the war is pro­gress­ing well, no mat­ter the re­al­ity on the bat­tle­field.

“We’re mak­ing some steady progress,” Maj. Gen. Jef­frey Schloesser, com­man­der of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion, told re­porters in Septem­ber 2008, even as he and other U.S. com­man­ders in Kabul were ur­gently re­quest­ing re­in­force­ments to cope with a ris­ing tide of Tal­iban fight­ers.

In March 2011, dur­ing con­gres­sional hear­ings, skep­ti­cal law­mak­ers pelted Army Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, the com­man­der of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanista­n, with doubts that the U.S. strat­egy was work­ing.

“The past eight months have seen im­por­tant but hard-fought progress,” Pe­traeus re­sponded.

One year later, dur­ing a visit to Afghanista­n, De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon Panetta stuck to the same script - even though he had just per­son­ally dodged a sui­cide at­tack.

“The cam­paign, as I’ve pointed out be­fore, I think has made sig­nif­i­cant progress,” Panetta told re­porters.

In July 2016, af­ter a surge in Tal­iban at­tacks on ma­jor cities, Army Gen. John W. Ni­chol­son Jr., the com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanista­n at the time, re­peated the re­frain.

“We are see­ing some progress,” he told re­porters.

Per­suad­ing the pub­lic

“Go­ing for­ward, we will not blindly stay the course. In­stead, we will set clear met­rics to mea­sure progress and hold our­selves ac­count­able.” — Obama, in re­marks from the White House

Dur­ing Viet­nam, U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders re­lied on du­bi­ous mea­sure­ments to per­suade Amer­i­cans that they were win­ning.

Most no­to­ri­ously, the Pen­tagon high­lighted “body counts,” or the num­ber of en­emy fight­ers killed, and in­flated the fig­ures as a mea­sure­ment of suc­cess.

In Afghanista­n, with oc­ca­sional ex­cep­tions, the U.S. mil­i­tary has gen­er­ally avoided pub­li­ciz­ing body counts. But the Lessons Learned in­ter­views con­tain nu­mer­ous ad­mis­sions that the gov­ern­ment rou­tinely touted statis­tics that of­fi­cials knew were dis­torted, spu­ri­ous or down­right false.

A per­son iden­ti­fied only as a se­nior Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cial said there was con­stant pres­sure from the

Obama White House and Pen­tagon to pro­duce fig­ures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was work­ing, de­spite hard ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

“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 se­nior NSC of­fi­cial told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers in 2016. “The met­rics were al­ways ma­nip­u­lated for the du­ra­tion of the war.”

Even when ca­su­alty counts and other fig­ures looked bad, the se­nior NSC of­fi­cial said, the White House and Pen­tagon would spin them to the point of ab­sur­dity. Sui­cide bomb­ings in Kabul were por­trayed as a sign of the Tal­iban’s des­per­a­tion, that the in­sur­gents were too weak to en­gage in di­rect com­bat. Mean­while, a rise in U.S. troop deaths was cited as proof that Amer­i­can forces were tak­ing the fight to the en­emy.

“It was their ex­pla­na­tions,” the se­nior NSC of­fi­cial said. “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.’ “

“And this went on and on for two rea­sons,” the se­nior NSC of­fi­cial said, “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.”

In other field reports sent up the chain of com­mand, mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and diplo­mats took the same line. Re­gard­less of con­di­tions on the ground, they claimed they were mak­ing progress.

“From the am­bas­sadors down to the low level, [they all say] we are do­ing a great job,” Michael Flynn, a re­tired three-star Army gen­eral, told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers in 2015. “Re­ally? So if we are do­ing such a great job, why does it feel like we are los­ing?”

Upon ar­rival in Afghanista­n, U.S. Army brigade and bat­tal­ion com­man­ders were given the same ba­sic mis­sion: to pro­tect the pop­u­la­tion and de­feat the en­emy, ac­cord­ing to Flynn, who served mul­ti­ple tours in Afghanista­n as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer.

“So they all went in for what­ever their ro­ta­tion was, nine months or six months, and were given that mis­sion, ac­cepted that mis­sion and ex­e­cuted that mis­sion,” said Flynn, who later briefly served as Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, lost his job in a scan­dal and was con­victed of ly­ing to the FBI. “Then they all said, when they left, they ac­com­plished that mis­sion. Ev­ery sin­gle com­man­der. Not one com­man­der is go­ing to leave Afghanista­n . . . and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t ac­com­plish our mis­sion.’ “

He added: “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.’ “

Bob Crow­ley, the re­tired Army colonel who served as a coun­terin­sur­gency ad­viser in Afghanista­n in 2013 and 2014, told gov­ern­ment in­ter­view­ers that “truth was rarely wel­come” at mil­i­tary head­quar­ters in Kabul.

“Bad news was of­ten sti­fled,” he said. “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.”

Other se­nior of­fi­cials said they placed great im­por­tance on one statis­tic in par­tic­u­lar, al­beit one the U.S. gov­ern­ment rarely likes to dis­cuss in pub­lic.

“I do think the key bench­mark is the one I’ve sug­gested, which is how many Afghans are get­ting killed,” James Dob­bins, the for­mer U.S. diplo­mat, told a Se­nate panel in 2009. “If the num­ber’s go­ing up, you’re los­ing. If the num­ber’s go­ing down, you’re win­ning. It’s as sim­ple as that.”

Last year, 3,804 Afghan civil­ians were killed in the war, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

That is the most in one year since the United Na­tions be­gan track­ing ca­su­al­ties a decade ago.


Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have de­ployed to Afghanista­n, many re­peat­edly.

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