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Documents Reveal Public Was Misled About War in Afghanistan

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Documents Reveal Public Was Misled About War in Afghanistan

2019-12-10 15:29:00

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: U.S. Army teaching Afghan police officer in Beshud, Afghanistan (Image: Public domain)


Documents that The Washington Post has fought to show that the public was misled about the war in Afghanistan. Officials were constantly saying that the efforts by United States military were making progress, but as the documents, taken from interviews and memos throughout the 18-year war, show, they were not. 

A federal project generated the 2,000 pages of documents with the purpose of examining the root failures of what has become the U.S.'s longest armed conflict. The government tried to hide the identities of those interviewed. While the Post won the release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after fighting in court for three years, they are still waiting on a judge's decision of whether the names can be released. They decided with the current conversations of ending the Afghanistan conflict, they needed to release the documents now — without the names. 


400 insiders offered forthright criticism, not believing the documents would ever become public. Three-star Army general Douglas Lute, who served as the White House's Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, says in the documents, "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing." He added in this 2015 statement, "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," he continued, blaming the U.S. military lives lost on a breakdown between Congress, the Pentagon, and the State Department. "Who will say this was in vain?"


More than 775,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan since 2001, many were sent multiple times. 2,300 died there, and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to the Defense Department. 

What these interviews show is how three presidents, two Republican and one Democratic, failed to end the war in Afghanistan as they had promised. They also show all of this was to remake the Middle Eastern country into a modern nation. The U.S failed in its attempt to end Afghanistan corruption, rebuild its Army and police force, and curtail its opium trade.


The U.S. wasted much money on this, though the figures have never been added up before, at least not publicly. Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate. 

"What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?" asks Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for the Bush and Obama administrations, in the interviews. "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."


Several have said it was explicit efforts by the U.S. government to mislead the public — deliberately. It is common practice at military headquarters in Kabul and at the White House to distort statistics to make it appear the U.S. was winning the war. 

John Sopko, from the federal agency that conducted the interviews, admits the project showed that "the American people have been constantly lied to."


An introduction to the eventual report said, "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." 

Along with those documents, are classified memos from former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who referred to his memos as "snowflakes." He made some of these public in 2011, along with his memoir, "Known and Unknown," but most remained secret. The Post relied on interviews and his memos for their report.


"I may be impatient. In fact, I know I'm a bit impatient," Rumsfeld wrote in one memo. "We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave. Help!" This was written just six months after the war started. 

At the onset of the war, the objective was retaliation against al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack and to prevent it from happening. However, as the war continued on throughout the 18 years, the mission kept changing with a continuing lack of faith in the strategy. Major disagreements were never resolved. Some officials wanted the war to be about democracy, while others wanted to change the Afghan culture. Some wanted to redistribute the balance of power between Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia.


Additionally, military commanders weren't ever sure who they were fighting and why, whether it was al-Qaeda, Taliban, Pakistan, or the Islamic State. The documents show nothing was ever decided, leaving troops without a clear understanding of who they were fighting. 

"They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live," said an unnamed former adviser to an Army Special Forces team. "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?' "


Rumsfeld complained about the same thing in 2003, I have no visibility into who the bad guys are," he wrote. "We are woefully deficient in human intelligence." 

Meanwhile, an Army lieutenant general was publicly praising their efforts: "This army and this police force have been very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day. And I think that's an important story to be told across the board." Yet, the Afghan security forces were described in interviews as being incompetent and unmotivated with many defectors. Additionally, Afghan commanders were accused of stealing salaries for tens of thousands of "ghost soldiers," a price paid by U.S. taxpayers.


But in a news briefing from Afghanistan, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, said, "Are we losing this war? Absolutely no way. Can the enemy win it? Absolutely no way." 

Yet, as the documents showed, no one even knew who the enemy was.

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