The Washington Post spent a lot of time and made many of Freedom of Information Act requests to dig up what they hoped would shed some light on what we’re doing in Afghanistan, why we’re still there and whether it is worth the lives of 2,400 — and counting — American military members and the cost of over a trillion dollars.
Adding to the fatalities are 3,814 U.S. contractors, 1,145 coalition troops, 424 humanitarian workers and 67 journalists. The number of Afghans who’ve died total nearly 160,000. And there is no end in sight.
But the Post’s bombshell fell on deaf ears: They tried to conjure up images of Vietnam, with the same name game: Afghanistan Papers, Pentagon papers. But the American public, unlike in the 1960s, is much more jaded than its parents and grandparents ever were. The report didn’t resonate with the public as the Post had hoped. The 2,000 or so pages of material weren’t going to pique the interest of an American public that is fixated on 140 characters.
But there also isn’t as large an anti-war movement as there was in the 1960s and 70s. Many of those who fought in Vietnam were draftees who didn’t want to go to war. Today’s military is a volunteer force and although many of the troops may not want to go to Afghanistan any more than their predecessors did, the numbers in Afghanistan today (about 13-14,000) are a far cry from the number of troops in Vietnam during the height of the war in 1968.
Surely Congress could carry the banner after the three years of digging that the Post did. But it didn’t pay any more attention to the report than the public did. It is also too busy, by being obsessed with a stupid impeachment trial that has been dragging on in one way or another since this current administration took office, to even take care about the business of running the country.
So, what are the Afghanistan Papers and why are they so important? The Afghanistan Papers are taken from the “Lessons Learned Program” of the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The Program interviewed hundreds of people who’ve been there and tried to get their take on what has gone wrong in the past 18 years.
According to the story in the Post, in Afghanistan, we have a bi-partisan effort to mislead and hide the truth from the American people. The reports generated by both military and political leaders painted a far more optimistic picture than what was transpiring on the ground; and in many cases as the reports were moving up the channels this optimistic picture would be increasingly emphasized.
The Post claims that military and civilian leaders “issued rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” They added, “Several of those interviewed described explicit efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public and [create] a culture of willful ignorance, where bad news and critiques were unwelcome.”
Among the notable points in the Papers is the lack of a clear national strategy with attainable objectives. That is a carryover from both the Bush and Obama administrations.
There is virtually no oversight in terms of Pentagon or DOD contracts. One forensic accountant, Gert Berthold, assigned to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012 pored through over 3000 contracts worth over 106 billion dollars and found that “about 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates, or corrupt Afghan officials.”
The U.S.’s attempts to cut into the Taliban’s money supply by limiting the opium production have failed. According to the report, opium which is made from the poppy plant and converted into heroin is now grown on four times as much land as it was in 2002. DEA officials have estimated that 82 percent of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan.
However, if one would think that these allegations would have the Pentagon running for cover, they’d be mistaken.
“I haven’t read all the stories frankly… but the stories spanned multiple administrations, multiple uniformed and civilian officials and I think it’s good to look back. I think at this point where I’m looking is forward,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that the Papers had nothing particularly “revelatory” in them and defended the intent of operations in Afghanistan. “The Taliban’s goal is to take over this country and they’ve been stopped in that at great cost to the Afghan people, at great cost to the Afghan army,” he said.
“If you read (the Papers), you’d almost think it’s a total disaster, and it’s not that at all. It’s been hard as hell but it’s not just one undistinguished defeat after another. They are the ones on the back foot.”
“I salute” the investigative reporting,” Mattis said, “but that it is ‘not really news’ because mistakes made in the Afghanistan war have been reported on by journalists for years.”
One area that the Papers struck home was when they charged that the United States had flip-flopped from gaining retribution for 9/11 to ousting both the Taliban and al-Qaeda to full-blown nation-building. That part of the national objective was doomed to fail from the start, given that the idea of a centralized national government is alien to most Afghans as they have been tribally based for centuries.
Even Mattis said that nation-building efforts fell short. “We had to try to do something in nation-building, as much as some people condemn it, and we probably weren’t that good at it.”
But even the Pentagon admits now that the only end for the war is a political settlement with the Taliban. Long gone are the days that the military leaders were convinced that the United States could beat them on the ground militarily.
In actuality, little has truly been accomplished there after 18 years. The Taliban control more of the countryside than they did in December of 2001. There are still huge problems with the Afghan army and police, and they can’t take on the Taliban on their own. Corruption is rampant and the central government remains very weak.
The Taliban know now that the Trump administration is actively trying to negotiate their way out of Afghanistan. Thus, they’re negotiating, if at all, from a position of strength. They are growing increasingly bolder: They sent suicide bombers to the largest U.S. airbase about a week ago and they are not going to stop.
Many believe that even a negotiated settlement with the Taliban won’t even last until the last of the U.S.-led coalition troops are gone. And the central government, without the U.S. propping it up, will fail.
“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the end game.” Charlie Wilson wrote these words after the U.S. helped the mujahedeen drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. They could be a fitting epitaph to the United States’ own involvement in the country that began about a dozen years later.