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Congress must hold Benghazi-level hearings on its own role in Afghanistan

Start by asking who benefited from the protracted war, a question that will elicit uncomfortable truths about Washington.

Congress should launch a Benghazi-level series of hearings into Afghanistan. The hearings should, of course, examine the Biden Administration’s planning for the final withdrawal of U.S. personnel and allies. But more importantly, they should dig into the much larger question: How does the United States avoid a future situation where it  is “easier” to stay in an unwinnable war for 20 years through lies than to tell the truth and get out?  

The investigation should start by looking in a mirror.

Congress voted to fund the war year after year, despite public reports and Congressional testimony by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and others that raised questions about the viability of the nation-building project in Afghanistan. The publication of the “Afghanistan Papers” in the Washington Post in December 2019 laid bare that the U.S. political and military establishment routinely lied to Congress about the progress on the ground, and that they did not believe the mission was likely to succeed. The response from Congress? Nada.

Reporting on endemic corruption in Afghanistan was plentiful. Why were we all taken by surprise by the  “ghost soldiers” on the Afghan payroll, and to find that morale was sapped, as Afghan troops in some cases were living off of rotten potatoes and insufficiently armed, while the United States was providing approximately $4 billion annually to support them?    

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, routinely reported on the toll that U.S.-backed bombing and drone operations were taking on the Afghan people, and Anand Gopal wrote a Pulitzer Prize nominated book — No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes — that explained clearly how these airstrikes and the chaos and terror they engendered directly led to the reconstitution of the Taliban and to widespread support for them in many quarters. Congressional cries in support of human rights were much more muted then, when people were actually being killed by our own bombs.

Many talking heads in Washington (and in London and Brussels and Kabul) — including members of Congress — warned strenuously against President Biden’s decision to end the war, claiming it was the greatest foreign policy disaster in modern memory. Why was this decision to take an off-ramp from an unwinnable war a greater blunder than, say, the bombing of the Medecins sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz in 2015, or routine bombings in the southern part of the country that drove many people into the Taliban’s camp?  

Congress should examine how this fiasco could go on for so long, given the open secret around corruption and the impossibility of the mission. They could start by examining who was benefitting from the war. 

Answer: The Foreign Policy Establishment, an interlocking mix of the military (with the revolving door to cushy arms company jobs or boards), the think tanks (which gratefully receive funding from the arms contractors) and congressionally mandated studies, like the Afghan Study Group (whose participants have ties to the arms companies), the media (which relies on arms corporate advertising dollars and former failed generals who serve as pundits), and Congress (whose campaigns are funded by arms corporate donations and who are strategically lobbied by constituents who work in the arms industry).

Given that mix, it’s no wonder that neither the media, think tanks, military or Congress asked and acted on key questions. Like: Did U.S. military actions — including repeated, misdirected, deadly airstrikes — directly contribute to the build up of the Taliban, as underscored in Gopal’s book?  Did the Washington policymaking system discount and disincentivize understanding of rural attitudes toward the Taliban?  How could the U.S. cooperate in Taliban operations against ISIS-K and Al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan a year ago but today find the Taliban completely unredeemable? How can people who are worried about the rights of women and others in Afghan cities support choking off all outside funding to this aid- dependent country now?

President Biden has accepted responsibility for the mess at the airport. At its upcoming hearings, Congress should accept its share of responsibility for letting this knowingly unwinnable war continue for so long, and it should seek to learn through asking real questions about its own record, as well as that of the agencies it is supposed to oversee.    

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