The US has restarted negotiations with the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan. However, its position of weakness has been exposed after confidential interviews with key figures involved in prosecuting the 18-year war have revealed that the US public was consistently misled about an unwinnable conflict.
The 2,000 pages of documents reveal the bleak and unvarnished views of many insiders in a war that has cost $1tn and killed more than 2,300 US servicemen and women, with more than 20,000 injured. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died in the conflict. Analysts say the interviews highlight 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. With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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. The 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.
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by the Washington Post reveals that senior US 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 US 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 They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.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 documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from US presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the US 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. 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.”
Analysts say the documents have echoes of the Pentagon Papers – the US military’s secret history of the Vietnam war that were leaked in 1971 and told a similarly troubling story of the cover-up of military failure. Two major claims in the documents are that US officials manipulated statistics to suggest to the American public that the war was being won and that successive administrations turned a blind eye to widespread corruption among Afghan officials, allowing the theft of US aid with impunity.
According to the New York Times, the Afghanistan revelations arrive in an America already so distrustful that it’s hard to imagine how it could be disillusioned further. Over 50 percent of the country still trusted the federal government to do the right thing at least most of the time in the early Nixon years; today the equivalent figure is 17 percent. The Washington Post’s reporting should be shocking, but in the current environment it’s hard to imagine any reader actually being shocked. And with the absence of shock, it seems, comes an absence of antiwar energy as well. The newly disillusioned America of 1971 wanted withdrawal from Vietnam and got it within a few short years; the more cynical America of 2019 has favored withdrawal from Afghanistan for almost a decade without getting it.
Afghanistan has long been the overshadowed war, eclipsed in public attention by the invasion of Iraq and a dozen other stories. Even so, the American occupation of Afghanistan grinds on, with an end seeming remote and any kind of positive resolution even more so, observed the Atlantic. Polls have long shown majorities or pluralities of Americans saying that they don’t think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting and that it is failing. Fewer than half now believe fighting the war was the right decision in the first place—a finding that comes as a jolt to anyone who remembers the national mood after September 11, 2001. Most think that the war doesn’t have a clear objective. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these views are often even stronger among veterans—the people who have been sent to fight the war and have seen how little progress the American effort is making, and at what cost.
Experts say the credibility gap regarding Afghanistan isn’t a bizarre and unstable temporary situation but the status quo. Everyone knows the US is losing in Afghanistan. Almost everyone in the government has been lying about it for years. Yet the collective response to this contradiction is a resigned shrug. The Afghanistan debacle has conditioned Americans to expect it. It helped pave the way for the presidency of Donald Trump, who as a candidate offered a mix of outright lies, goofy fibs, and bullshit, and has faithfully continued to do the same since being elected. As with so many of the troubling currents in contemporary American politics, Trump didn’t create the condition in which people shrug at their government when it brazenly and transparently lies to them. But he has benefited from and exacerbated it.
US analysts say their troop presence in Afghanistan has declined substantially since the Obama-era surge of troops and the much smaller early-Trump-administration troop increase. It is possible that in a Trump second term or a Bernie Sanders presidency it will finally trace a slow descent to zero, with or without a deal with the Taliban, and after 20 years or so Americans finally discover that even endless wars can end.