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How U.S. Military Leaders Perpetuated The Great Big Lie in Afghanistan

Analysis | Global Crises

Something those of us who had already seen the U.S./coalition/NATO campaign in Afghanistan up close already knew has now been publicly (and thankfully) revealed by the Washington Post: the American people were systematically misled by their political and military leaders over nearly 20 years about supposed “progress” in the war in Afghanistan.

The evidence that the lies mouthed by these leaders were, well, lies, has been obvious to anyone with an interest in the nature of war and the making of strategy. This list of lying civil-military leaders is long — encompassing presidents, their cabinet members, and the senior and mid-rank officer corps. At the top of this list, however, loom the senior generals that paraded through Kabul publicly mouthing their rosy assessments because they knew it was what their political masters wanted to hear. Going along with the narrative meant they could climb the chain of command and, in turn, get their tickets punched to the 0.1 percent club upon retirement, with posts on corporate boards and at Harvard and other hallowed halls of industry and the academy.

Making waves by telling the truth? Well, that’s not a ticket to the club.

In this connection, I recall one particularly poignant moment in my three trips to Afghanistan in 2011 when I was at the NATO Training Mission in Kabul as part of a team to try and help design the new Afghan defense ministry. It was common knowledge at the lower levels that then-NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander General David Petraeus wanted to hear about the “progress” of the Afghan National Security Forces in various readiness metrics, as displayed in charts that moved from red, orange, and yellow to green. Green, of course, meant “progress.”

This rainbow of colors in reality signified a crock — a crock that everyone knew to be a lie — as the United States poured billions of taxpayer dollars every month into an ill-fated project to rebuild (yet again) the Afghan Army without the foundation of a solid government and the security sector institutions that assured its survival as we in the U.S. and NATO understand things.

I actually asked the Canadian general heading up the mission at the time about all those charts moving from red to yellow to green (much to the shocked consternation of the rest of my team). He simply shrugged his shoulders with a resigned shake of his head. He already had one foot out the door on the next plane back to his home country — which, at that time, had borne a disproportionate share of the casualties in Kandahar and, in turn, withdrew from the operation, because Canadian civil-military decision making has been healthier than in the U.S.

One officer in the Post story characterized this process as the “self-licking” ice cream cone, with the officer corps lying to its leaders, who, in turn, lied to their political leaders, who, in turn, kept reassuring the public — despite knowing it was all a lie. At some point, we started believing our own disinformation, being snowed by the “messaging” packaged up to be mouthed by our generals, ambassadors, and presidents to a willfully unsuspecting public.

There was no such progress in the war, as more than 2,300 body bags arrived on American tarmacs with the soldiers that had paid the ultimate price for our folly with their lives. Another 23,000 wounded were shunted off into the broken Veterans Administration health care system to suffer in semi-silence and, in turn, to be forgotten. For what valid strategic end — crafted not solely by senior civilians, but by flag officers as well — did they sacrifice, exactly? Was it so that generals like Doug Lute and David Petraeus and their colleagues could take up corporate digs at Lockheed Martin, Harvard, and Blackrock?

A favorite talking point of various public commentators as well as those interviewed in the Post story was/is the endemic problem of “corruption” in Afghanistan. Many cited the social order and its pecuniary aspect as the main reason for the lack of real “progress” in the war. The Afghans indeed proved very adept at looting our Treasury, but, truth be told, they didn’t really have to work all that hard to liberate their billions from Uncle Sam.

Far more troubling than the known corruption of the Afghan government are the revelations of our own institutional and moral corruption in refusing to speak the civil military and strategic truth about what was actually, really happening in Afghanistan for these bloody decades. Instead, our political and military leaders concocted “messaging” strategies that they knew to be false. And it has to be said that maybe, in the end, generals like Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus, John Allen, Lute, and others actually came to believe the lies they were helping to perpetuate. Lute was interviewed on NPR following the Washington Post story, and instead of acknowledging the systemic corruption that reached all the way to the White House, he complained that his comments had been made in an interview that, he thought, was off the record. He denied any participation in or knowledge of any attempts to mislead the public.

There was no better example of the self licking ice cream cone of narratives, mass persuasion and messaging than the kaleidoscope of bubbles and pears and crossed arrows that was the infamous Stanley McChrystal graphic intended to explain his plans to resolve the Afghan problem. McChrystal emerges from the Washington Post account with his bubbles burst, his pears crushed and his crossed arrows quite broken. But his inspirational talks on leadership and long distance running at 0300 hours still earn him more money than has been paid to the hapless veterans of this campaign, who suffer broken bodies and harmed spirits in a kind of silence that should be the shame of each American citizen.

The lies surrounding the saga of America’s war in Afghanistan are another depressing lesson in America’s broken civil-military relations, and point more specifically to the endemic rot within a careerist senior officer corps and their civilian masters in the executive and the legislative branches. Senior political leaders in the Bush and Obama administrations were equal participants in the charade, with military and political leaders lying to each other about the actual situation on the ground. One symptom of the corruption is well interpreted in Tom Ricks’ work, “The Generals,” which a concerned citizen might put in hand once they read the Post article: no senior political or military leader has lost their jobs during the Afghan War for failing to accomplish their missions.

In some cases, strategic and operational failure actually led to promotion. Despite being CIA Director during the single largest loss of life in the agency’s history, the December 2009 FOB Chapman attack, Leon Panetta was promoted to Secretary of Defense by Barack Obama. Despite his obviously central role in misleading the public in Afghanistan (and Iraq) General Petraeus was moved along to become CIA Director, where he subsequently escaped with a wrist slap for the gross felony of sharing his top-secret diaries with his girlfriend.

I recall being in a combat outpost with a former student of mine and his company in 2009 in Khost Province, along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any official from any level of government could clearly have grasped the folly of the war by spending a few days there witnessing our fruitless attempts to build a local police force, supervise elections that everyone knew were fraudulent, and watch the Afghan Security Forces shake down the locals for money — in part because they hadn’t been paid their salaries in months.

With no leaders willing publicly to state the truth, is it any wonder that the United States has proved unable to formulate and implement a coherent strategy to achieve clearly defined political objectives in these years since 9/11?

Instead, political leaders and their military brethren devolved to the comfortable doctrinal dogmas of the tactical and operational level, believing that new training manuals touting the benefits of “stabilization operations” and “counterinsurgency” could provide success in the field, while in reality the troops fought with the same search and destroy tactics that proved less than successful in Indochina a half century earlier.

In 1971, the release of Daniel Ellsberg’s “Pentagon Papers” provoked an outraged public, which was already in the streets protesting the Vietnam War. But today, with a defective civil-military apparatus in the U.S. and our military detached from society in their bases and subsidized housing complexes, the public averts its gaze from the ongoing disaster with the anodyne “thank you for your service” as a way to avoid their own constitutional accountability in the ongoing disaster in Afghanistan.

The Great Big Lie as recounted in the Washington Post calls for the citizens of this nation to take back their role in its defense and to start giving a damn about war and peace and demanding accountability. If we want our forever wars to end, the people will have to demand it. Otherwise, our political and military leaders will just keep on lying to us.

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