Joined: 07 Mar 1999
Location: Berkeley, California
|Posted: Mon Dec 09, 2019 4:44 pm Post subject: Afghanistan
|THE PENTAGON, 2003 (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)FORT CAMPBELL, KY., 2014 (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals 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 documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.
The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.
Key insiders speak bluntly about the failures of the longest conflict in U.S. history
‘We didn’t know what the task was’
Hear candid interviews with former ambassador Ryan Crocker and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn
THE FIGHT FOR THE DOCUMENTS
About the investigation
It took three years and two federal lawsuits for The Post to pry loose 2,000 pages of interview records
At war with the truth
U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.
Stranded without a strategy
Bush and Obama had polar-opposite plans to win the war. Both were destined to fail.
Built to fail
Despite vows the U.S. wouldn’t get mired in “nation-building,” it has wasted billions doing just that
Consumed by corruption
The U.S. flooded the country with money — then turned a blind eye to the graft it fueled
Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption
Overwhelmed by opium
The U.S. war on drugs in Afghanistan has imploded at nearly every turn
MORE STORIES Interviewees respond Share your story about the war
In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.
With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.
Click any underlined text in the story to see the statement in the original document
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”
Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.
The interviews, through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.
THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS
See the documents More than 2,000 pages of interviews and memos reveal a secret history of the war.
Part 2: Stranded without a strategy Conflicting objectives dogged the war from the start.
Responses to The Post from people named in The Afghanistan Papers
With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.
The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.
The U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering.
Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.
Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.
“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”
The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.
Exclusive: A secret history of the war in Afghanistan, revealed 17:36
(Video by Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)
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 U.S. 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.”
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.
In 2014, at Sopko’s direction, SIGAR departed from its usual mission of performing audits and launched a side venture. Titled “Lessons Learned,” the $11 million project was meant to diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan so the United States would not repeat the mistakes the next time it invaded a country or tried to rebuild a shattered one.
The Lessons Learned staff interviewed more than 600 people with firsthand experience in the war. Most were Americans, but SIGAR analysts also traveled to London, Brussels and Berlin to interview NATO allies. In addition, they interviewed about 20 Afghan officials, discussing reconstruction and development programs.
Drawing partly on the interviews, as well as other government records and statistics, SIGAR has published seven Lessons Learned reports since 2016 that highlight problems in Afghanistan and recommend changes to stabilize the country.
But the reports, written in dense bureaucratic prose and focused on an alphabet soup of government initiatives, left out the harshest and most frank criticisms from the interviews.
“We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians,” read the introduction to one report released in May 2018.
The reports also omitted the names of more than 90 percent of the people who were interviewed for the project. While a few officials agreed to speak on the record to SIGAR, the agency said it promised anonymity to everyone else it interviewed to avoid controversy over politically sensitive matters.
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.
The agency eventually disclosed more than 2,000 pages of unpublished notes and transcripts from 428 of the interviews, as well as several audio recordings.
The documents identify 62 of the people who were interviewed, but SIGAR blacked out the names of 366 others. In legal briefs, the agency contended that those individuals should be seen as whistleblowers and informants who might face humiliation, harassment, retaliation or physical harm if their names became public.
By cross-referencing dates and other details from the documents, The Post independently identified 33 other people who were interviewed, including several former ambassadors, generals and White House officials.
The Post has asked a federal judge to force SIGAR to disclose the names of everyone else interviewed, arguing that the public has a right to know which officials criticized the war and asserted that the government had misled the American people. The Post also argued the officials were not whistleblowers or informants, because they were not interviewed as part of an investigation.
A decision by Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington has been pending since late September.
The Post is publishing the documents now, instead of waiting for a final ruling, to inform the public while the Trump administration is negotiating with the Taliban and considering whether to withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan.
The Post attempted to contact for comment everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an interview to SIGAR. Their responses are compiled in a separate article.
Sopko, the inspector general, told The Post that he did not suppress the blistering criticisms and doubts about the war that officials raised in the Lessons Learned interviews. He said it took his office three years to release the records because he has a small staff and because other federal agencies had to review the documents to prevent government secrets from being disclosed.
“We didn’t sit on it,” he said. “We’re firm believers in openness and transparency, but we’ve got to follow the law. . . . I think of any inspector general, I’ve probably been the most forthcoming on information.”
The interview records are raw and unedited, and SIGAR’s Lessons Learned staff did not stitch them into a unified narrative. But they are packed with tough judgments from people who shaped or carried out U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich,” James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. “We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”
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