Originally appeared at The American Conservative.
An extensive investigation by The Washington Post into a trove of confidential documents has found that the government has been deliberately misleading the public about the war in Afghanistan with dishonest claims of progress senior officials knew to be untrue:
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul – and at the White House – to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to US military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” [bold mine-DL]
The interviews are the byproduct of a project led by Sopko’s agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Known as SIGAR, the agency was created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in the war zone.
The revelations in the report show that our political and military leadership that has been constantly violating the public’s trust for the sake of perpetuating a futile war. Their efforts to distort and conceal the evidence of the war’s failure have served to warp the debate over US policy in Afghanistan to the detriment of US interests and at the cost of American and Afghan lives. Instead of telling the public the truth that the war was unwinnable, our political and military leaders have worked to keep Americans in the dark about the conflict as much as possible.
These documents have come to light now only because the Post sued to force SIGAR to release them:
Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Post began seeking Lessons Learned interview records in August 2016. SIGAR refused, arguing that the documents were privileged and that the public had no right to see them.
The Post had to sue SIGAR in federal court – twice – to compel it to release the documents.
Considering how damaging this information is to the credibility of the government, it is not surprising that there was such resistance to making these records available to the press.
Some of what the investigation uncovered was already familiar to anyone who has been covering or writing on the war. The war had the shifting and unrealistic goals, and it continued to be fought for unclear reasons. There was also basic confusion about who the enemy was and was not:
The Lessons Learned interviews also reveal how US military commanders struggled to articulate who they were fighting, let alone why.
Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the US government never settled on an answer.
As a result, in the field, US troops often couldn’t tell friend from foe.
“They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live,” an unnamed former adviser to an Army Special Forces team told government interviewers in 2017. “It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: ‘But who are the bad guys, where are they?’ ”
The ill-advised pursuit of “nation-building” also led to a spending spree that achieved little except to fuel monumental corruption that our government then chose to tolerate:
The gusher of aid that Washington spent on Afghanistan also gave rise to historic levels of corruption.
In public, US officials insisted they had no tolerance for graft. But in the Lessons Learned interviews, they admitted the US government looked the other way while Afghan power brokers – allies of Washington – plundered with impunity.
Throughout all of this, one administration after another has committed to keeping US forces in Afghanistan with no end in sight, and military leaders routinely tell us that progress is being made and that it would be irresponsible to withdraw. When a war has become divorced from US interests and has become an end in itself, the only way to justify its continuation is to ignore the reality and create a useful fiction by distorting and spinning the evidence:
In Afghanistan, with occasional exceptions, the US military has generally avoided publicizing body counts. But the Lessons Learned interviews contain numerous admissions that the government routinely touted statistics that officials knew were distorted, spurious or downright false.
The report confirms what many of us have known for some time. The war in Afghanistan cannot be won. Our political and military leaders have been lying to us about the progress of the war practically since it began, and those lies have kept the US needlessly at war for more than 18 years. It is long past time that Americans demand accountability for this colossal waste, and that begins by demanding that the US bring its involvement in this war to an end.
Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.