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Two decades. More than 2,300 U.S. troop deaths. Roughly a trillion dollars.
Time, blood and treasure haven’t stamped out the scourge of terrorism or transformed Afghanistan into a stable democracy. And while they touted turning points and cheered presumptive progress, our leaders knew it was a quagmire all along.
The Washington Post revealed that conclusion after sifting through 2,000 pages of records and notes it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act following a three-year court battle with the federal government. This week, the newspaper published a series of stories on the documents it’s dubbed the Afghanistan Papers — a reference to the Pentagon Papers that similarly revealed the Vietnam conflict to be unwinnable.
Military commanders and other key decision-makers painted an unflattering picture of the war and nation-building effort in the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s $11 million series of reports ominously titled “Lessons Learned.”
The U.S.-backed Afghan government “self-organized into a kleptocracy,” Col. Christopher Kolenda said during a Lessons Learned interview, according to The Washington Post’s reporting.
“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” said Ryan Crocker, a former American diplomat who served in Kabul.
While troops privately expressed misgivings, the government back home churned out relentlessly positive spin that’s so far removed from reality it qualifies as disinformation or propaganda. Since then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s speechwriters released a rosy 2006 report, the Post’s Craig Whitlock noted, “U.S. generals have almost always preached that the war is progressing well, no matter the reality on the battlefield.”
Like Vietnam, this 18-year slog has not resulted in decisive victory. Losses erase gains as sandstorms cover footprints in the Afghan desert in a cyclical, cynical repetition.
“...If we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?” retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn said in a 2015 interview for the inspector general report.
Advisers gathered data to reinforce the message top brass wanted to hear — the U.S. is reshaping Afghanistan and winning the war on terror — and when the figures wouldn’t cooperate, they were contorted.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Army Col. Bob Crowley told interviewers. The evaluations, he said, “became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have all overseen a portion of the Afghan war. Each commander-in-chief has praised the military’s efforts. Army Gen. Douglas Lute, who worked in the White House during the Bush and Obama administrations, said commanders lacked a coherent strategy.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Lute told interviewers in 2005, according to the Post. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
The Afghanistan Papers’ publication comes as President Trump considers a peace agreement with the Taliban.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said in his 2019 State of the Union address.
It’s clear that troop withdrawal is necessary and mission drift bedeviled the American war effort, which has failed to eradicate the group that perpetrated the 9/11 terror attacks and the government that sponsored and shielded al Qaida.
Our Middle East interventions produce unintended consequences. From 1981-91, the United States backed fundamentalist Islamic mujahedin fighters who were battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Some remnants of those Afghan resistance groups have been linked to al Qaida and the Taliban. While ISIS, the so-called Islamic State group known for its brutality, formed in 1999, it began rising to prominence and attracting recruits after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
This war has not defeated our enemies or made us safer. We’ve likely created more militant extremists and sympathizers than we’ve eliminated.
Hawks have ruled the roost in both the Republican and Democratic parties. If Trump maintains his resolve and overcomes the neoconservative war cries, we may see a long overdue end to war in Afghanistan. On the other side of the aisle, Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard — herself a combat veteran — grasps the grim reality better than her party’s front-runners.
The government’s report is called “Lessons Learned.” Has our government really learned from its mistakes? If so, let peace supersede politics and bring the longest war in our nation’s history to a close.