The Afghanistan Papers were always hiding in plain sight
Why the Pentagon never fooled America about the Afghanistan war
The war in Afghanistan is lost, and has been for years. That's not just my opinion — it is also that of top officials in the American occupation, according to a vast document trove obtained by Craig Whitlock for The Washington Post. It calls the project The Afghanistan Papers — a reference to the famous Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon report about the Vietnam War leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. "What are we trying to do here? We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking," Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, Afghan war adviser to both President Bush and President Obama, told a government interviewer.
Yet the only major new information here is the identity of those making the criticisms. They come from "Lessons Learned," a confidential report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that collected testimony from top government officials that the Post obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. It's good to know, but anyone with eyes to see has known for years that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless.
Whitlock notes that SIGAR has previously produced several "Lessons Learned" reports, but that they were "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." And they do demonstrate that SIGAR left out the most unsparing criticism from top officials — particularly regarding the deception of the American public. But it's also true that overall, SIGAR has painted in its reports a picture of unrelenting disastrous failure — particularly in the summary emails sent to reporters.
Searching my inbox, I find 56 emails summarizing dozens of different SIGAR reports since July 2016, when someone added me to the distribution list. Picking a few at random:
- On July 28, 2016, SIGAR audited a $423 million Afghan army vehicle maintenance program and found the contractor failed "to meet its most basic contract requirements and program objectives," yet the Pentagon didn't hold them accountable.
- On October 7, 2016, SIGAR reported that hundreds of millions of dollars were probably being spent on salaries for non-existent soldiers and police — noting that the offical Afghan army strength was 319,595, but quoted an Afghan official saying "the best internal estimate put the number around 120,000."
- On November 17, 2016, SIGAR reported that $85 million in government-backed loans to build a hotel and apartment building had not produced anything, possibly because of corruption: "[T]he buildings were never completed and are uninhabitable, and the U.S. Embassy is now forced to provide security for the site at additional cost to U.S. taxpayers."
- On July 31, 2017, SIGAR reviewed a contract to bolster the Afghan army's intelligence operations, and found that due to shoddy data and "lack of performance metrics," "it is almost impossible to gauge the government's return on investment for the $457.7 million spent." What little they could examine uncovered broad failure to appropriately train personnel and naked bill-padding from the contractor.
- On March 18, 2019, SIGAR reviewed three Army Corps of Engineers contracts worth $1 billion together and found Afghan army personnel "had confiscated contractor-owned property and mistreated or abused contractor staff under all three contracts."
Again, these are just a few among 56 reports detailing a litany of corruption, failure, and waste. One will struggle to find a single positive word in any of them.
Quarterly SIGAR reports to Congress found rampant corruption in both the Afghan government and the U.S. reconstruction effort, steadily increasing Taliban control of the country, and as a result, huge numbers of civilian casualties and internally-displaced refugees. The actual reports, it's true, are a bit more leaden and obscure — but one doesn't have to do much reading between the lines (I have used SIGAR's work over and over and over to argue that the war is lost) to see the obvious truth that the occupation has been a disaster from start to finish. Just reading the PR emails will do just fine.
Whitlock has done a great service showing that the top military brass can see this truth as well yet, like Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War, have lied to the American people. "Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public," he writes. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and multiple top generals publicly said things they knew to be false. Head of SIGAR John Sopko admitted to the Post that "the American people have constantly been lied to."
"If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost," General Lute told SIGAR interviewers. "Who will say this was in vain?" But all the lies did not work — the American people have already decisively turned against the war. Indeed, even veterans now say the war was not worth fighting — 58 percent of former soldiers as compared to 59 percent of all adults. One doesn't have to be a master military strategist to see that America's longest war — which as Whitlock notes has cost more than the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the Second World War in inflation-adjusted terms — is not going to be won. It is only the D.C. Blob that refuses to accept the inevitable.
Both this new report and all previous SIGAR reports show the American occupation has been a disaster for both the U.S. and Afghanistan. American forces are enabling corruption and fueling conflict instead of the opposite. It's time to realize that and get out.