On Monday, The Washington Post published a bombshell six-part series exposing the Bush and Obama administrations for knowingly and repeatedly lying to the American public about the war in Afghanistan.
This is nothing short of this generation’s Pentagon Papers, which exposed the terrible lie of Vietnam. But chances are you haven’t heard of the Afghanistan Papers, because impeachment is sucking the oxygen out of every newsroom, network and political website in America.
Have we lost our ability to be outraged over anything or anyone aside from Trump and his reality-show administration?
Here we now have 2,000 pages of previously secret documents containing interviews with more than 600 people, from decorated generals to intelligence officers to senior White House officials to ambassadors to aid workers to NATO allies to 20 Afghan officials, all telling the same story.
This war, 18 years old, the longest in American history, no end in sight, is unwinnable. It always will be. But the people who send our young men and women to die there, to suffer grave physical injuries, to return with PTSD that can’t be successfully treated or to commit suicide — at a record rate of twenty Veterans per day — have known it all along. And they have lied and manipulated numbers and have kept using our troops as cannon fodder to be seen as tough on the War on Terror and win second terms in office.
As Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the Afghan war czar under Bush and Obama, said in this report: “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost. Who will say this was in vain?”
Every single person, apparently, with knowledge of how this war was conceived and is still — clumsily, defiantly, pointlessly — being prosecuted, is willing to say it’s been in vain.
As long as their testimony remained a secret.
The report, titled “Lessons Learned” — a tone-deaf reference to Vietnam — is the result of another investigation by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR. These “lessons” cost, unbelievably, $11 million, and ironically grew from the original task of investigating fraud and financial abuse by the Afghans.
The candor here is staggering, born of a belief by participants that what they had to say — the truth — would never be made public.
Nearly one month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001. The objective was to dismantle al Qaeda, the terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government protecting it. Within months, leaders of both groups were either dead, captured or on the run.
Yet rather than withdrawing from the Graveyard of Empires, President George W. Bush decided to stay in Afghanistan — the beginning of mission creep — and pivot to invading Iraq. The SIGAR report is augmented by memos issued by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was shocked by Bush’s lack of attention to Afghanistan.
According to a Rumsfeld memo dated Oct. 21, 2002, the Defense Secretary asked Bush if he wanted to meet with Army Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill. Bush had no idea who that was.
Rumsfeld: “He is the general in charge of Afghanistan.”
Bush: “Well, I don’t need to meet with him.”
McNeill later told SIGAR “there was no campaign plan for Afghanistan,” yet Rumsfeld, no hero here, “would get excited if there was any increase in the number of boots on the ground.”
On May 1, 2003, President Bush announced, in a highly staged scene on an aircraft carrier, “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. That same day, in a press conference in Kabul, Rumsfeld said “major combat activity in Afghanistan” was over.
Yet four months later, at a meeting at the Pentagon regarding Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.”
Neither did our troops, just as in Vietnam.
What’s missing from this report — which The Washington Post says is the “sanitized” version of this national scandal, 90 percent of the names redacted — is the real motive for continuing the war in Afghanistan.
Presidential politics is one thing, but when seemingly every single person who talked to SIGAR says they don’t understand the mission or the plan of action or that there is no plan of action or that the numbers show the United States is losing, badly, and the longer we’re there the worse we’re making the problem — post-US invasion, Afghanistan now produces 82 percent of the world’s opium supply — what was the reason?
What is the reason? After $1 trillion spent and thousands of lives lost, why?
The Afghanistan papers read apolitically; extreme frustration and anger are expressed at Bush and Obama, both of whom led administrations that insisted on lying to the American public, on spinning numbers or making them up, on insisting military commanders tell the press that we were winning as we were losing.
McNeill said when he became NATO commander in 2007, “There was no NATO campaign plan . . . I tried to get someone to define what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could.”
Yet in 2008, Bush increased US troops by 10,000, to a total of 31,000. That same year, Barack Obama ran on getting all US troops out of Afghanistan; in his first year as president, Obama increased troop levels by 30,000. When asked why, Obama’s go-to reply was always to “disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda.”
But as the SIGAR report makes clear, al Qaeda was long gone, and the Taliban had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL who served as a White House staffer under Bush and Obama, told SIGAR that “no one asked” why this was.
By 2010, the US and NATO casualty rate hit another high. Yet every US military and administration official was told to hit one message hard: Progress, progress, progress.
Army Lt. General David Rodriguez, at a press conference in Kabul that year: “We are steadily making deliberate progress.”
Army Gen. David Petraeus, testifying before Congress in 2011: “Important but hard-fought progress.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on the ground in 2012: “Significant progress.” He had just avoided death by suicide bomb.
An official from the National Security Council told SIGAR that there was tremendous pressure from the Obama administration and the Pentagon to produce data that proved the US was succeeding, even though “it was impossible to create good metrics.”
So, the official said, here’s how they spun, absurdly, bad news into good: A rise in successful suicide attacks? That meant the Taliban was too afraid of US forces to fight fair.
A rise in US troop deaths was framed, in loathsome and cynical terms, as “proof” we were fighting with the enemy.
As if that is not the definition of armed combat.
Meanwhile, American special forces attempting to train Afghan police and security, according to the report, “hated” them, with one US soldier calling them “awful — the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.” Another said that one-third of the recruits were “drug addicts or Taliban.”
In 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US spent over $64 billion on Afghan forces, but at least 30,000 of those were “ghost soldiers” — they did not exist. One contractor told SIGAR he was ordered to spend $3 million per day on one tiny province and asked a congressman on a fact-finding mission if he’d ever be able to do that in the US.
The answer: “Hell, no.”
The response: “Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend, and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.”
Another source reports that the level of graft and corruption is “fatal” to our chances. Everyone in a power position there is on the take, from judges to police to government workers. The result? Afghans look at what the US is doing and think, If this is democracy, bring us back the Taliban.
Bob Crowley, retired Army colonel, counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan from 2013-2014:
“Truth was rarely welcome . . . There was more room to share bad news if it was small — we’re running over kids with our [armored vehicles] . . .”
This, by the way, is how easily warped perspective becomes, that the accidental deaths of innocent children by US forces is insignificant.
“But when we tried to air larger strategic concerns,” Crowley continued, “about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan government, it was clear it wasn’t welcome.”
This time last year, President Trump announced the withdrawal of nearly half our 14,000 soldiers from Afghanistan. In October, The New York Times reported the drawdown was closer to 2,000.
Clearly, no end is in sight.
The Afghanistan papers should become a lead talking point on cable news and the Sunday shows. Every candidate on the presidential debate stage should be asked if they’ve read them, what should happen to those who lied to the American people, and what their plan is for leaving, their premise is for staying? Has Trump read them, or been briefed? Has this changed his plans for engaging?
And Congress, once the high theater of impeachment is over, should open an investigation worthy of the grievousness we know about and root out what we don’t — though that may be too much to hope, fatigued as they no doubt will be by scandal and outrage.
So much for learning our lesson.