One of the Biggest Tragedies From the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ is that Nobody Cares
On December 9 the Washington Post published an article entitled “At War With the Truth,” after obtaining a confidential trove of government documents revealing 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 cache consisted of interviews with more than 400 U.S. government insiders, as part of project led by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the agency created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in Afghanistan. As the Post noted, those officials “offered unrestrained criticism” of the U.S. war effort, including “complaints, frustrations, and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.”
The reaction to the article was both swift and predictable. Echoing the movie “Casablanca,” various commentators declared that they were shocked that their government would lie to them. Or, to borrow from the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” one would have to be obtuse to not recognize that when it comes to Afghanistan the United States is clueless.
The real question, however, is why — after over 18 years of war in Afghanistan — anybody would be shocked that the U.S. government would lie about its progress there. Because for many years now it has been plain that there is no winning U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. What people should be distressed about is the fact that U.S. policymakers don’t particularly have to lie. They long ago realized that most Americans, unless they have sons or daughters actively serving in the military, don’t care.
Everything that the officials said privately, quoted in the Post piece, has been documented for years in the numerous reports released by SIGAR. True, SIGAR doesn’t actually use the word “lie.” But when its reports point out the variance between what the U.S. military says and reality, what else should one think?
For example, in its most recent quarterly report, SIGAR notes that:
“United States Forces–Afghanistan (USFOR-A) told SIGAR this quarter that Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) efforts to secure the Afghan presidential election on September 28 resulted in ‘less violence than expected.'”
Yet in the very next paragraph, it also notes:
“This quarter’s security activity caused civilian casualties to spike. The United nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported a record high number of civilian casualties from July through September (4,313), representing a 42% increase compared to the same period in 2018.”
As Chico Marx said in the movie “Duck Soup”: “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
For people of a certain age the obvious parallel is the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers, the official Pentagon history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, which were leaked to the public by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study.
But one need not go back that far for evidence that the United States has both consistently failed to understand the challenges of fighting unconventional wars and has consistently refused to acknowledge that failure. Like the “scarlet letter,” the evidence has been there in plain sight for most of the twenty-first century. One only has to look back at Iraq to understand.
I can personally attest to this because in 2013, I worked as the public affairs liaison in the final year of the existence of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), the independent agency headed by Stuart Bowen, which paved the way for SIGAR.
In March 2013, SIGIR released its final Lessons Learned report, “Learning From Iraq: A Final Report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.” As stated in the foreword, “The nine-year rebuilding program, the second largest SRO [stability and reconstruction operation] in U.S. history (after Afghanistan), expended about $60 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars and billions more in Iraqi funds.”
The report is notable because, like SIGAR would do later, Inspector General Bowen conducted a series of interviews with both Iraqi and U.S. political, diplomatic, and military leaders to get their candid views on how the U.S. did in Iraq. Unlike the SIGAR report, however, these people were willing to go on the record.
For both Iraqi and U.S. officials, “The general belief across each group is that the relief and reconstruction program should have accomplished more, that too much was wasted.”
Consider just a few excerpts from some of SIGIR’s interviewees:
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
“The reconstruction program’s early phases revealed ‘a lack of thought’ with regard to the initial rebuilding plan. From the Secretary’s perspective, there did not appear to be a sustained strategic vision of how reconstruction should be conducted following the invasion.”
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns
“Early on, the United States poorly prioritized programs and projects, failing to make realistic evaluations as it forged forward while security conditions collapsed. Program managers tended to do too much too fast, pushing too much money out the door too quickly.”
General Raymond Odierno
“With regard to reconstruction efforts, the United States made two poor assumptions during the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. First, it underestimated the societal devastation that Iraq suffered during the 25 years of Saddam’s oppressive rule and thus miscalculated how incapacitated the country would be following the invasion. Second, the United States tried to execute a full-scale reconstruction program too early and consequently found itself working with a weak and uncertain Iraqi government in an insecure environment.”
Ambassador Ryan Crocker
“The U.S. reconstruction programs in both Iraq and Afghanistan provide a number of significant lessons learned, the most notable of which is that major infrastructure projects in stabilization and reconstruction operations must be approached with extreme care and assiduous planning. Undertaking such in unstable zones presents what Ambassador Crocker termed ‘huge complications,’ and the normal cost estimate for projects should be multiplied by a factor of ten to arrive at the true end price.
“A major shortcoming of the Iraq program was the failure early on to obtain ‘genuine’ Iraqi buy-in on major projects before U.S. funds were committed to building them. Although the Iraqis would occasionally give a ‘head-nod’ to a project, they usually were not paying much attention because they were not footing the bill. Once work was completed, however, U.S. officials frequently found that there was no will on the Iraqi side to accept or maintain the projects.
“Ambassador Crocker took these lessons with him to Afghanistan, where the United States did a better job of securing local buy-in. But sustainment problems persisted there too. For example, there is no Afghan budget to maintain the new roads built with reconstruction money. ‘We’re already seeing them crumbling,’ [emphasis added] he said.”
Senator John McCain
“Senator McCain recounted how he was ‘stunned’ when, during one of his many visits to Iraq, a general told him that project oversight of a contractor’s work was being conducted by drone aircraft. Defense and State were unprepared to take on the challenges of so large an effort, and congressional oversight was ‘out the window’ for a while. In the early phases of the program, the United States Congress appeared to have a ‘laissez faire’ attitude toward the expenditure of U.S. tax dollars in Iraq.”
What people should take from the Post revelations is not just that government officials routinely lie — or, in Trump terminology, manufacture fake news — distressing as that is. The reality is worse than that. We simply don’t care. As Walt Kelley’s famous Pogo the Possum character said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
To borrow from the “X-Files,” the truth has always been out there for those who care to look. All people have to do is sit down and read a few reports. Evidently that is a price most people are unwilling to pay.